WORDS FROM TOM: Stay Open to Grace

One summer day while walking with friends I got a phone call from my cardiologist. I had gone to him the day before because I was getting out of breath just walking, but I’d checked out fine, and he had sent me on my way.

“Your blood tests came back and the numbers are really low.”
“How low? ”
“The lowest I’ve ever seen. You need to pack a bag right now and get yourself to the hospital. ”
“A big bag, or small bag?”
“I’m sorry, Tom. A big bag.”

Before I knew it I was at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and my friends were visiting. In the hallways and to each other, the staff were referring to me as “leukemia.” But they had yet to diagnose me and refused to tell me until they could, officially.

I spent the weekend there mostly with friends, drinking red wine and partying like I had won the lottery. Somehow I had taken this stupendous news and made it celebratory. It was weird and maybe hard to understand, but at the time it was magical. By Monday my brother got me into Memorial Sloan Kettering, just kitty corner from where I was, and I had lots of fun with the ridiculous 50-yard ambulance ride.

But I was glad to have transferred, because apparently it was all about nailing down the precise diagnosis before beginning any treatment protocol. It took them a long time to figure it out, and the clock was ticking. I needed a bone marrow transplant, yesterday, and we were just beginning the search for possible matches, which was already way late.

Meanwhile, when they did figure out the final diagnosis, it was not good. A particular genetic defect made all the difference. It was the “5Q negative” genetic marker that made my chances of surviving a year between 5 and 15%. I saw the people around me change into all shapes and forms upon hearing the news and confronting their perception of me and what they thought was my destiny. Saying goodbye for the last time in their minds to the person standing before them.

The thing was, and what people couldn’t possibly understand, was that I found myself awash an object-less sea of gratitude. There was nothing in particular or at all that I was grateful for. It was just an overwhelming sense of gratitude, of Grace.

I was told I would have four weeks of treatment and then four weeks of recovery, then another four on and off, and finally a six-week stint as a present day boy-in-the-bubble. Then, at 40 years old, I spent the next nine months living with my parents as my caretakers.

They were my last choice by far. But in the end, and after my girlfriend at the time (understandably) bowed out, that’s who it had to be. We learned how to live together. I spent most of my time in the fetal position, being coaxed to drink water that tasted like poison, swallow pills by the fistful, and eat some of the ice cream which had become my only food  option. This was because I had xerostomia, or permanent cottonmouth, from the total body radiation, along with nausea from it and the maximum doses of chemotherapy. The ice cream was soft and palatable. All normally healthy food became anathema since the closer it was to the earth, the more it was a danger to me. Soon fresh vegetables became etched in my mind as “bad food”. Nothing from the earth. That could kill me. 

 

Meanwhile, I was developing some sort of a relationship with my parents. Grace, again. 


After a grueling year, I made it to the first and most important benchmark, when the odds of surviving go up greatly. By that time my yoga practice consisted of spending up to five minutes getting my legs up the wall, as my fascia/connective tissue had shrunken considerably, along with the rest of me. I lost 40 pounds, and didn’t have much to spare in the first place.

 

And the rest of my day and life consisted of overcoming fear at all costs. We all knew that the common cold or any small complication could kill me. So every time a complication did arise, I just returned to the image of each “event” as a small bump on the road. I knew I must and would survive for the people who love me, if nothing else. So what seemed like mountains to most were mere molehills for me. I did my damnedest to share this perspective, but it was hard.

 

Surviving was weird. Technically I am cured, as the cancer was in the bone marrow that is now someone else’s. My blood type changed from B+ to 0+, and is seven years younger, as I like to remind people sometimes. Some of the long-term side effects that they warned me of have definitely kicked in. Most obvious are the cognitive and dental ramifications. I definitely have “chemo brain,” which is why it is so hard for me to remember people’s names and faces. This is the hardest part of teaching yoga for me. I fear that students who have taken my class several times will be put off if I don’t remember them or forgot their names. I only hope that they forgive me. Another long term effect is the cottonmouth, which has led to a lot of unwelcome dental work. Anemia turned out to be another side effect in my case, so running and cardio are out. Otherwise, I’m alive.

Will I ever again reach that sublime state of Gratitude?
Unfortunately, I don’t think so.

Do I want to? 
Absolutely. 

How?
Stay open to Grace.

Om Namah Shivaya
Tom Weston

WORDS FROM LIZ: EMBRACE THE PROCESS

We live in a society obsessed with the final product. Heck, you could probably set your phone or computer down right now, walk to the nearest market, and purchase a prepared meal within the next ten minutes; or, better yet, just have it delivered! While this convenience is often a lifeline to sanity for busy New Yorkers, it also separates us from the process. 

There is a process to everything, from creating a piece of art to the series of expansions and contractions that make up a single breath. In yoga, we are asked to notice the process and release expectations of the product. That sounds beautiful in theory, I know, but how can we actually practice non-attachment when there is obviously a set physical structure to each pose?

Well, here’s my take:

I once had a Russian movement instructor, Vlad, who ended every class by challenging us to become “pelmeni.” In Russian, this means “dumpling.” In yoga, we recognize this asana as Yoganidrasana, or Yogic Sleep Pose.

Vlad would walk around the room belly-laughing at us as he yelled, “MORE! MORE! MORE!” It was not pleasant, but I knew that there was a lesson to be learned. My ego decided this lesson was to teach Vlad a lesson - I’d be a Pelmeni by the end of the first week if it was the last thing I did. 

Needless to say, that did not happen. 

Once my ego was sufficiently busted, I decided to get curious about the process. It went something like this: deep hip openers every single day, several weeks of practice, and having the courage to laugh with Vlad as he laughed atus. 

Guess what? I became a Pelmeni and I didn’t even care

Those several weeks of practice didn’t teach me that I could become a dumpling. Rather, they taught me that there is a process to everything. This meant that not only can I train my body to fit into a certain position, but I could also learn how to navigate the metro in a foreign country, cook a five-course meal, and even become a certified yoga instructor. I can do whatever I want as long as I embrace the process! 

You can, too. Humans are cool like that. 

So, while you may dream of a perfectly parallel Warrior III or hope that your heels touch the mat in Downward Facing Dog, I encourage you to insteadfocus on the joy of the process. That feeling of the future calling as new air enters your lungs, the release of the past with every exhalation. Allow your practice to be an asylum from the onslaught of societal expectations. Just…breathe. You may become a dumpling one day, but you’ll be so in love with the process that you’ll barely notice. And that’s why we keep coming back to the mat. 

See you there!
Liz

WORDS FROM JISSEL: THE ART OF REIKI

Ki is a Japanese term for life-force energy, same as prana in Sanskrit, Chi in Chinese Medicine, Ka in Egyptology. All of these describe the universal force that creates and sustains life. It is the very force behind our breath, thoughts, emotions, and each cell in our bodies. It is vitality, the divine spark within, and our energy field. Reiki is one of the practices available to us to use life-force energy as medicine for the betterment of our mind, body, and spirit.

 

Receiving Reiki returns you to the true nature of your design, which for daily life means balance, connection, and wholeness. Of course, you and I are human, and we will encounter confusion, stress, worry, fear, anger, and pain throughout our days. These mental, emotional, and physical states are completely normal and important to recognize. However, prolonged exposure is what often leads to imbalances in our health and well-being. We luckily have these practices, which were preserved by our ancestors and predecessors, that unite us back to the natural laws of creation.


This art and practice also ignites and fosters our spiritual growth. To me, that means embodying our potential as human beings. It means living aligned with our intuition, compassion, acceptance, talents, skills, artistry, and intellect. It means practicing love and integrity in our relationships, work, and finances. This deep longing for harmony exists within us because it is the truth and completely viable.

 

You can experience Reiki in various forms: through hands-on healing, via distance healing, or in a group setting. The quality of the medicine is always the same, what varies within practitioners is the quantity that can be channeled for transference. As professional healers, our advancement only comes from the ability to clear up imbalances in our lives in order to serve as clear conduits for others.

It has been one of the greatest gifts of my life for all I have described and so much more. I hope you have a better understanding of the profound benefits of Reiki and invite you to make it part of your regular self-care routine. You deserve to know your brilliance!

WORDS FROM COLLEEN: Mind Your Meditation

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Meditation seems to be on the fast track of becoming the “next wave” of fitness. What’s a finely tuned and toned body actually worth without an equally-tuned mind behind it to run the show? It seems we are finally starting to appraise and appreciate the entire package. Countless articles, testimonials, and clinical research all extoll the benefits of a regular meditation practice. But what’s that supposed to look and feel like? One of the most important messages starting off is simply this: let go of any pre-ordained ideas of having some type of “experience.“  That frees you from any self-imposed restraints and allows your meditation time to feel more natural and alive with curiosity, even if you label it as unsuccessful.  Don’t beat yourself up.  The work is in the consistency more than the result.  Slow and steady shifts.

 

The Buddha taught that real wisdom is recognizing and accepting that every experience is ultimately impermanent. Nothing lasts. What you see and monitor closely through a neutral filter cannot trip you up. You are going to know what’s coming and head it off at the pass...well, sometimes.  You would still be improving.  The following is an excerpt that I wrote a while back that offers a slightly humorous perspective on this subject:

 

“Sri Dharma Mittra, in his typical trademark self-effacing humor and good natured scolding, points out that we have been, since the moment of birth, gradually surrendering ourselves towards demise (disease, old age) and ultimately death.  Now in his seventh decade, Dharma has some helpful perspective and advice to offer on this point.  Without a trace of vanity, he cheerfully uses himself as an example - grabbing fistfuls of gray hair and beard to great effect and then rakes his fingers down his face to exaggerate the sagging folds of his jowls.  The room erupts in fits of giggles at his antics, but the message is loud and clear.  That message being: this body is a vulnerable and transient vehicle, and in order to unlock the joy and freedom from deep within, we first need to recognize and eventually get past the superficial. While I agree that a lot of what he says is not exactly comforting in our youth-obsessed culture, it is a valuable and honest assessment offered with whole hearted sincerity.”    

 

Meditation and mindfulness won’t make us into a perfect human.  What we may find, however, is that we can, most of the time, find the calm composure necessary to pause, distinguish, assess and respond with more wisdom instead of blindly reacting to situations and triggers of our day-to-day.  There can be a conscious choice to override those “auto-pilot” settings of entrenched behavior.  That’s the magic right there - it’s in that one moment that invites you to simply wake up and steer an alternate course, change up your game, rotate your perspective.  Because trust me, if you can manage this once, you can do it again and again...

WORDS FROM ALYSSA: When Life Gets Hard, Breathe!

The first 10 days of 2018 presented some challenges for my family.

First, when it was 10 degrees outside, the thermostat broke and we had no heat.

It took several different people over the course of several long days to figure out that it was the thermostat and not the boiler. We used space heaters in the bedrooms at night and dressed in about a zillion layers during the day. It was cold.

*Note: MANY people living in public housing in NYC, including children and senior citizens, were without heat and hot water during the coldest days last week.*

About a week after that was fixed, we had a flood in the basement.

Not just your garden-variety water flood, no. A sewage flood.

Home ownership = good times.

The sewage flood was in fact as gross as it sounds. And to make matters more complicated, the plumbers could not find the sewer drain, which meant almost two full days without running water and usable bathrooms.

So, Steve, Lily, Amanda, my mother-in-law Jeanne, and dog Polly got an AirBnB downtown.

They found the sewage drain underneath the ceramic tile of my basement floor, and now it is fixed.

When we were in the car on the way home, my mind went to how inconvenient this all was. I got cranky, my chest got tight, and I felt restricted. I shifted my awareness to my breath and created some space in between those thoughts.

I thought about all the Syrian families that were abruptly forced from their homes with no resources and nowhere to go. Families just like mine.

I thought of all of the families that recently lost their homes to hurricanes, floods, fires, mudslides. They had to leave with just the clothes on their back and the lost everything. Families just like mine.

And I was flooded with gratitude. My mind generated thoughts about how we were all safe, had the resources to fix what needed to be fixed, and were able stay somewhere safe and warm. My body felt lighter and more spacious.

We all know the power of gratitude. We all get it, intellectually, and it's easy to feel it when things are just humming along nicely.

But how do we access it when things go wrong? Most often, the mind latches onto what is wrong and down that road we go. How can we stop that? How can we turn the switch to gratitude and change our experience?

I truly believe the frequent practice of yoga makes this switch more accessible.

We must practice continuous self-care (in which I mean internal gentleness and non-judgement) and mindfulness. Notice the quality of your thoughts and how they make you feel without judgement. And then come back to your breath. Our breath is the doorway to more expanded states of consciousness like gratitude, joy, appreciation, and love.

When we are able to cultivate the practice of watching our breath in yoga, massage, or other subtle body work, we create a fertile soil in which gratitude can grow.

When things go wrong, we are resilient, spacious, and level-headed. And of course, able to access gratitude, which makes our inner experience so much better.

And when our inner experience is good, everything else falls into place, even if it looks like things are falling apart.

In gratitude,
Alyssa

WORDS FROM AMOS: Resolving to Be Present

It’s a New Year! Many of you are feeling stuck in this bitterly cold winter and want to go into hibernation and catch up on sleep missed over the holidays. Some may have chosen to set intentions, burn sage, or vision board, and the new calendar year is a great excuse to create new habits. But for most of us, many of our best laid plans dreamt on the bright dawn of day begin to dwindle almost immediately. In my experience, I have found the loftier the goals, the further they fall.

If you are feeling sluggish, slow and stiff or don’t feel like setting an intention, you don’t have to! Maybe that isn’t a part of your self-care process. Enjoy this time when the weather encourages you to stay inside and take the rest that you need. Build your stores of energy for a later date. But take good care. Be conscious of the choices you make in the present moment: a pint of ice-cream all in one sitting might seem like best self-care in the world, but you know in actuality it will just send your body into overtime to try to work that through your system, thus defeating this rest. Instead, dive deep into the quiet space inside all of us, perhaps practicing some focusing pranayama like alternate breathing or nadi shodhana. Nap, and repeat.

However, if you fall in the camp that likes to dream big, and have a list of self-improvements single-spaced and double-sided, don’t forget that old fable about the tortoise and the hare. Instead of lumping all of your self-improvement for the year into one month, can you start with something small? Making your bed daily, not looking at electronics one hour before you fall asleep, or making sure you have at least one vegetarian meal a day. Psychologist Jeremy Dean says that it takes 21 days to create a habit. Choose one “improvement” that you think you can reasonably succeed at implementing and would give you joy. Commit to that for three weeks. Mark the days you succeed on your calendar, and do me a favor, don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day. If you miss more than three times in your three weeks, check in with yourself to see if this is a change you really need.

Because ultimately, change is a part of life. We can’t hold on to this current point in our lives any more than we can hurry the future. We practice on our mats to try to discover that balance inside each one of us. The sound OM that we call out each class represents four different parts of change: creation, maintenance, destruction and then the pause, the silence before the cycle begins again. Take this moment, whether you are feeling ready to take on the new year or need to wait until spring, and tune inward so that you can be the change you wish to see in the world!

-Amos

WORDS FROM STACEY: The Winter Solstice

"The winter solstice has always been special to me as a barren darkness that gives birth to a verdant future beyond imagination, a time of pain and withdrawal that produces something joyfully inconceivable, like a monarch butterfly masterfully extracting itself from the confines of its cocoon, bursting forth into unexpected glory."

— Gary Zukav

I’m not the kind of person who can talk to you about signs and stars and what the universe is telling us through them.  I know that I’m a Libra, but that’s about it.  If there was another zodiac sign rising at the time of my birth, I’d be inclined to guess it’s the one that likes red velvet cake.

That being said, there is something about the Winter Solstice that both intrigues and comforts me.  I realize that I’m one of few who will say this, but I like the darkness.  Especially when it’s cold outside.  It gives me an excuse to come home, put on pajama pants, make some soup, and sit on my couch.  In the winter, I become quite skilled at doing nothing. 

Every year I go to a friend’s solstice party where we are encouraged to embrace the dark in order to bring in the light.  So many people dislike the shorter days and longer nights, which I totally understand.  But I also appreciate the fact that sometimes we need to dive deeper in order to grow.  Growth – whether it be physical, emotional, or spiritual – can be a painful process.  And sometimes that process is better served under the cloak of darkness, within a cocoon, by one’s self. 

Every year around this time, my son spends Christmas out of town with his dad.  When this first started about 10 years ago, it was torturous for me.  I hated being alone in my apartment, and I did whatever I could to keep busy.  One week I saw five movies in four days just so I wouldn’t have to be by myself.  But little by little, I started to sit with my discomfort and spend more time alone at home.  I cooked food that my son doesn’t like, I devoured books that I’m embarrassed to read in front of other people, and, yes, I put on comfy pants at 5 o’clock in the afternoon and called it a day.  Now I use that week to take care of myself, recharge before the new year begins, and eat dessert before dinner.  (You didn’t think it was all about self-reflection, did you?)

So, even though the Winter Solstice was officially yesterday, I hope that you allow yourself time in the weeks ahead to at least recognize, if not embrace, the darkness.  The light will seem so much brighter after that.

Wishing you a happy Solstice and a wonderful holiday season!

xo
Stacey

WORDS FROM ALYSSA: What happens when we let stuff go?

I love coffee.  No, like, I mean, I REALLY freaking love coffee.

Super strong coffee. No sugar, but light with half and half.

In a big mug.

I go to sleep at night looking forward to my morning coffee.  There were many nights that I'm sure that my morning coffee was my last thought of the day.

Y'all...two weeks ago I had my last cup of morning coffee.

I let it go.  

“Why?” you wonder.

I realized that the coffee was affecting my sleep negatively (I often wake up at 3am and can't get back to sleep), and adding to my tendency for anxiety.  

I don't want to feel anxious, and I really want to sleep well.

My intuition has been pointing to the coffee (as reasons for my anxiety and insomnia), but I've been stubbornly refusing to listen.

Until I listened. And I let it go.

What did that look like?  Well, I started with green tea, so I wouldn't get headaches.  I really don't like green tea, I think it's thin and bitter and boring.  On day two I got really sick.  Body aches, lethargic feeling, heavy and sleepy.  Day three I was normal(ish) still drinking green tea.

Day four I switched to Kukicha tea, which is earthier than green tea and more to my liking.

So here's the thing.  Something happened that I didn't expect.  

Letting coffee go made room for some things to come in.

I'm sleeping much more soundly.  And I'm naturally waking up at like 5:30.  I've always wanted to wake up and do an hour of Kundalini yoga before the kids woke up, but couldn't quite get the energy to do it. It's dark and cold at 5:30am. My bed is warm and comfortable.

But letting the coffee go enhanced the quality of my sleep and now I'm up.  And so now I'm doing my spiritual practice in the quiet of the morning.  Something I've always wanted to do, but couldn't quite make happen.

And this shift happened effortlessly.  I can honestly say that.

I'm even slightly surprised at myself.

And my comittment to my spiritual practice has my re-committing to practice with you. 

As a yoga studio owner and teacher, I'm asking you to practice yoga frequently. To take time out of your busy day and come to your mat.  To get massages or Reiki or other private services to help you to integrate the physical, emotional, and psychological stuff that can come up with a frequent yoga practice.

I ask you to do this and I haven't been doing it myself.  I got really busy again and went down that rabbit hole of busy.

So no more of that.  I'm committing to you all to practice with you at least 4x a week in the studio AND getting massages at least twice per month.

Why? Because I want to feel good. My morning spiritual practice is the foundation of who I am.  My asana practice with you makes my body healthy and my mind open, and I connect with the community of students and teachers on a much deeper level.

So that's me.  That's what I've let go and allowed in.

See you on the mat.  

Love,
Alyssa