karuna_Reiki.164223609_stdResolve to Love Yourself First

By Gina Lee

The New Year starts with the best intentions:

This year, I’m going to finally lose weight… stand up to my boss and ask for a raise…start eating better and take charge of my health…volunteer more…quit smoking…get out of debt…

Insert your resolution here. The basic premise of a resolution is clear: make a change to your habits or lifestyle that will be positive and healthy. Resolutions usually involve something with our external world and habits and we start off with the fresh energy and determination. We also attach unrealistic expectations by wanting to see results right away and we think that if we throw ourselves headlong into the new habit it will stick like going to the gym every day or quitting smoking cold-turkey, vowing not to eat ANYTHING that isn’t healthy, making lunch to bring to work every day to save money.

Why is it so hard to keep a resolution empowered and to make lasting positive change? Making resolutions are not the problem. Setting unrealistic expectations and attaching to specific results is.

Some of the problems with our common resolutions are that they are externally oriented, i.e. losing weight or making more money to get out of debt. The primary drive to do these things is superficial, “I want to look better” or “I want to save up enough money to go on vacation or buy a new car”. At first glance, these things seem like perfectly good goals but if you scratch the surface you will quickly come to the expectation attached, “If I lose weight I will look better and I will be happier.” “If I save money and get to go on vacation or buy that new car I will be happier.”

The assumption is that if we achieve these external goals we will be happier. The reality is that we need to face the question, “Would this external goal really make me happier in a permanent way?” The answer is no. It might make you happy for a little while, but it’s the fleeting kind of happiness that can be taken away as soon as you lose it or it changes in some way. The resolution is that we are seeking more happiness, not the external goal. What we really need to do is learn how to shift our perspective within ourselves rather than to seek happiness from external things.

Yoga teaches us that we can be happy in our life right now, exactly the way it is with the circumstances as they are. The practice of santosha (sahn-toe-shah translates to contentment) teaches us to be grateful and content with all of the things that we already have, to love our selves and our lives exactly where they are. It’s OK to have goals but we should not attach our happiness to them. We learn to embrace our flaws and the time that it takes to change because it is difficult to break bad habits and it requires compassion to forgive yourself if you lapse occasionally. The road to success is studded with potholes and occasionally we will trip up. The Warrior’s Path in yoga is to stumble, forgive yourself, and carry on, to pick up where you left off and to start again. You are lovable right now. You have everything you need to be happy. There is always something to be grateful for. You are enough. You have enough.

When you accept where you are with compassion you have more strength to make sustainable changes in realistic ways rather than burning out quickly. You will start to see that you have more strength than you realize and the healthy changes come easily because when you are whole you naturally make better choices. You stop self-medicating with eating, drinking, shopping or smoking when you are stressed, eating bad foods because you are lonely or bored. You choose to go to yoga class or to the gym because it makes you feel good, not because you’re punishing yourself for not being good enough.

Be happy today. Love yourself now. The rest is just icing on the cake of your life.


Can you spare me some change?

The only place in life where making change is easy is in a bank. For the rest of it, change is at best mildly uncomfortable and at worst like pulling teeth. Our individual constitution, personality, life experiences, strength of character and behavioral patterns will determine just how uncomfortable changing is.

For me, change was always exceptionally hard. I had to convince myself repeatedly that it was worth the effort, that the end result would be far shinier and prettier in order to justify the feelings of rage and discontent that would surface in me almost instantly. In addition, being an American conditioned to strive for perfection AND instant gratification, I found many reasons to want to change but gave up very quickly which did two things:

1) Established in me an inner critic so oppressive even a fascist regime seemed like a support group.

2) That I had a weak character and that I was destined to stay exactly where I was both physically and emotionally which made addictive behavior like eating, smoking and sex a perfect escape from the reality of my weakness.

Lucky for me (and anyone who knows me) yoga found me in my mid twenties and started to prove to me that I COULD change, that I wasn’t weak (in fact quite the opposite) and that adapting to change was going to be the most critical and beneficial life skill I could acquire for dealing with the roller coaster of circumstances that would be handed to me in the coming years.

In the beginning of a yoga practice, a person is faced with many uncomfortable realities about themselves. You are shown your weaknesses, stiffness and imbalances with brutal honesty. A person’s reaction to these truths varies. For myself, my inner critic loved to pipe up. An example of my early inner dialog:

“Wow, Gina. You are REALLY out of shape. Look how that girl over there can touch the floor without bending her knees. You are SO stiff, I guess you should have been working out for all of these years instead of sitting on your butt eating. AND did you see her in those leggings? Wouldn’t that be nice…not having a muffin top in your size 12 sweatpants. She was probably born that way, lucky girl. Look how she can hold that warrior pose without even shaking and I don’t see a drop of sweat on her. I’m hungry…after class I am TOTALLY treating myself to a bacon cheeseburger. I’ll get a salad tomorrow…”

Sound familiar? My teacher must have been able to read minds because within 3 days of seeing me return to practice she offered encouraging little tidbits in class like,”Be patient and kind to yourself during practice, always remembering to practice non-violence especially in your thoughts.” and “Remember there is no competition in yoga, especially with yourself.”

How did she know? It was all over my face. I would hold my breath, clench my jaw and silently berate myself again and again.

After a solid hour of self-flagellation, I would leave before the deep relaxation. She finally called me out on it one day.

“Gina, why do you leave before the best part of class? It’s really important to give yourself some time to rest at the end and absorb all that you’ve done.” She offered this gently with a smile. I felt like she had shone a flood light on me in a prison yard escape attempt.

“All I do is lie there thinking of what I have to do with the rest of the day, what’s waiting on my desk, what I’m going to get for lunch. I can get a jump on it, fit more in with the time.” I replied almost honestly, not sharing the other fact that it irritated me to see the others so peaceful, clearly better than me.

“Just give it some time, it’s only five minutes. When your mind is racing, watch the thoughts pass by, redirect your attention to watching your breath. It may seem weird, but it takes some practice to learn how to relax. Be patient and just see what comes up. You might be surprised.” she offered this with a knowing glimmer in her eye.

The next practice I stayed for deep relaxation convinced it would be terrible but determined to try to follow her suggestion. What’s the worst that could happen? It is only 5 minutes…

“OK, here we go. I’m going to relax, dammit. Watch your inhale and exhale, OK, seems easy enough. Inhale…exhale….inhale…exhale…what’s for lunch? Maybe pizza….Oh, there’s a thought. I knew I couldn’t do this. Stay focused, Gina, try again. Inhale….exhale…..relax your legs….inhale….exhale….relax your belly….inhale…..exhale…..relax your jaw….inhale….exhale…inhale……..exhale……….”

Before I knew it, my teacher was Om-ing us out and I was so relaxed I had fallen asleep. I was so refreshed I felt as if I had slept for 3 hours. Something had shifted in me, something had changed, and this time it was for the better. When I learned to just relax but stayed focused without being overly critical about whether I was doing it right I found within me a quiet space of deep peace, that place where the outside world ceased to exist. My thinking mind slowed down and I found deep rest. A thin piece of a vinyl mat on a hardwood floor never felt so comfortable.

Sometimes change is painful but a lot of the time it brings a much needed change in perspective and creates the conditions necessary for positive growth. I made many more changes since that first deep relaxation and came face to face with many more of my self-limiting doubts and negative thinking patterns. I got stronger and more balanced, lost weight and made better choices for myself more easily and readily without fighting them so much. I had good days and bad, days where my practice felt effortless and satisfying and days where I struggled and had to back out many times. I kept my peaceful disposition, smiled and laughed when I fell and tried again, and stayed for deep relaxation for every class.

10 years later I’ve learned a lot about myself and continue to work on my weaknesses while not judging myself or others for theirs. Practicing yoga is just that, a constant practice. If you can learn to stay present without judging, quietly cultivating a witness  inside of yourself and remain vigilant but not violent, you can come back home the peace that is your true nature. You may also learn to welcome change with open arms rather than steal yourself against it. I still get the twitch inside of myself to reflexively revolt against change but after years of practice I’ve learned how to quiet down the critic and embrace the change for the lesson I’m about to learn.


The DMV & Me

The DMV on a gorgeous spring afternoon is the perfect place to practice yoga. The fluorescent lights, the stale, airless quality of beige linoleum despair sprinkled with crying children and tension so thick you can feel the collective sphincters puckering all around you. State offices seem designed to provoke and/or depress you. If there was ever a group who needed yoga it was these people that I shared space with on an impossibly uncomfortable wooden bench that was seemingly designed to cause lower back pain and tension.

It’s easy to do yoga in a cave in the mountains, cut off from life and it’s distractions and obligations. It’s also easy to go to a beautiful yoga studio complete with soft music and soothing lights, a refuge from your daily life and family, surrounded by like-minded seekers  collectively tuning in to their breath and moving together as one. In the DMV it’s hard enough to take a deep breath from the lack of circulation and funky smells emanating from the people around you let alone thinking of doing yoga. Besides their charming smells their moods and energy range from bored to tweaked to aggressive to depressed.

The yoga I am referring to is not the kind done on a sticky mat while chanting Om, although mantra and asana practice would probably make the wait time pass more quickly. The yoga I mean is the kind we practice anytime, anywhere without anyone ever knowing it. It comes from a place within your heart, the place you melt into in deep meditation or savasana relaxation at the end of yoga class or when you’re doing anything that you love like gardening, running, reading a book, playing with your kids or pets or watching a sunset. The place where we remember that while we are going through the motions of being a part of society and dealing with bureaucratic offices and oceans of paperwork we can rest in the ocean of peace and contentment that is the reality of who we are if we choose to remember it.

I sat on the sadistically designed bench flanked on each side thigh to thigh with a man who has perhaps forgotten what soap and antiperspirant are and a woman who believes that you can never wear too much perfume. I looked out across the sea of faces and saw a woman with a freshly soothed child no longer crying, resting her head placidly on her mother’s shoulder and to an older couple sitting beside each other holding hands while each read their own book. I smiled and breathed, although not too deeply, grateful for the luxuries of my culture and country where at least I had the opportunity as a woman to drive and own a vehicle. No matter how physically or mentally uncomfortable you are you can usually find a reason to be grateful which is what yoga is all about. Yoga doesn’t change life, but it can change your reaction to it.

I sat and waited patiently, grateful for the physical practice of yoga for making my lower back stronger and less tweaked by the seating arrangements. I held my number lightly careful not to watch the clock or the “now serving number” ticker too closely, watched water never boils. I remembered my excitement at passing my road test and the first taste of freedom my license brought me at 17 years old, now 17 years behind me. Before I knew it my number was being called and I smiled at my bench mates and wished them a speedy passage. They smiled back, hopefully their tension released just a bit, if only momentarily. Yoga off the mat is quickly becoming my favorite way to pass the time.

Sign of the times

The Long Island Rail Road route through Jamaica, Queens is not what you would call a scenic trip. Barbed wire graces most rooftops, industrial buildings with their cold,grey facades and sporadically broken windows are common and most expanses of brick or fence are emblazoned with some form of graffiti. Overgrown patches of weeds and misshapen trees spill over the crude and often broken chain link fences that border the train tracks. As anyone who has ridden a commuter line knows, the vista is not something that one should consider when on your way into work.

Having been a commuter on this line for years when I was working in NYC as a graphic designer, I would on most days ignore the view completely. Nothing inspiring or new to see, I would spend my time with my nose buried in a book or dozing. On good days when I felt focused I would plot my day carefully in my mind as to what I needed to achieve. On bad days I worried incessantly about which project I was behind on and how on earth I could get it done.

It’s been 5 years since I’ve taken that regular commute and in that time I’ve ridden the trains a number of times for trips into the city for yoga or socializing, never paying another glance to the landscape speeding past the windows.

This morning I rode the very same line that I’ve done so many times before and I gazed out the window in a foggy meditation. My eyes passed over the many familiar landmarks pondering what lie ahead today in my workshops at the NYC Yoga Journal Conference.

My life and circumstances have changed substantially since I rode this line for work, I am now a yoga teacher in the process of opening my first yoga studio in addition to being in the midst of a separation from my husband of 12 years and father of my 2 children.

My perspective is radically different from just a few months ago let alone 5 years. Gazing out the window I am seeing things for the first time, wondering if they had always been there or if they are new additions. A large flowering tree growing in a ditch next to a murky sewage drain, a rooftop of solar panels lining an industrial building in an otherwise dilapidated area. A carefully painted fence and cheerful window boxes filled with flowers adorning a modest house in a row of broken down unsightly ones.

Being a yogini all these years has given me some fresh perspective and taught me how what we see is largely what we are conditioned to see. Often times we choose to ignore or become desensitized to certain things out of habit or denial, steadfastly clinging to what we have known for so long to be true. If we are in a dark place we often see only the negative, focusing on scarcity or misfortune and projecting that onto our environment.

Yoga teaches us to be present and to cultivate an awareness of the abundance of beauty that is often times right under our noses if we just take the time to see it. The lotus flower, a symbol of enlightenment in yoga and many spiritual traditions, grows from its deep roots in the mud and darkness, knowing that with time and faith it will reach the surface of the water where it will bloom into a spectacular natural work of art displaying its beauty for all to see.

My awareness has shifted from simply ignoring the bleak landscape scarred with ugliness and misfortune to seeing the beauty and glimmers of light and hope that are all around us right now. If we truly open our eyes and shift our perspective from our limited microcosm of experience to the broader lens of the whole we can always find something to remind us that everything is exactly the way it is meant to be, that everything is perfect.

In yoga there is a practice called Shiva drishti in which we gaze out on the world and humanity through the eyes of Shiva, the yogic representation of the energy of creation and transformation, to see in everyone and everything their potential and innate divinity as opposed to their limited physical form and flaws. God is everywhere if we look, nothing is ever just what appears on the surface and everyone will see something different depending on where they are in their lives. Just think of how many times you have only seen what you were experiencing at that time; if you’ve ever been pregnant you spot the other pregnant women everywhere. When you buy a new car you see them everywhere you go. Get divorced and only see happy couples all around you. Shiva drishti is a practice to help stay present and aware of the divinity that connects us all if we can gaze out through God’s eyes.

Yoga has also taught me to be more mindful about setting rigid expectations and to be more flexible about even making plans for the day, I set goals but I hold them lightly understanding that a greater lesson may be given if I am open to change as I go. If I am sad or lonely I remember that if I just shift my perspective I can find comfort knowing that things will change again, patiently reminding myself of the perfection in the moment.

On the speeding train into NYC towards a day of yoga and meditation I hear the words of one of my teachers, Dharma Mittra, “Be receptive to the grace of God.” With no expectations I head into the day open to receive whatever I am meant to be given, holding it lightly in the palm of my un-grasping hand. I gaze out through the eyes of Shiva, seeing the beauty through the ugliness, the divinity in the scarred landscape, the new life springing up in improbable places.

Yoga Den Grand Opening!!

We are working like busy little bees to get our yoga center and website up and running for you! Meantime, grab a log, swap up some honey, and get ready to join our incredible mama bear yoga community. To learn more about our yoga programs, please contact me – owner Gina DiMassi, at my email (click here), or give me a ring at 631-560-4401. Start stretching!