I judge too fast

I went to this yoga workshop once called “Slow Burn.” We started seated in a circle. The teacher said we would go around the circle and each person would say I ____ too fast. We were all supposed to fill in the blank according to where in our life we need to slow down. When my turn came, I proudly declared, without hesitation, “I drive too fast.”

The circle ended with the teacher (one of my all time favorite mentors) proclaiming, “I judge too fast.”

What? That’s an option?

I need to change my answer.

A couple of months ago, while mindlessly perusing Facebook, I had a memory of that moment. I spend more time on Facebook than I’d like to admit. It’s a weird anomaly in my otherwise non-digital life. I recognize how much of a life-waste it is, yet sometimes, after a long day, I spend more than thirty or forty minutes sifting through electronic pages of people’s lives. Nowhere in my life do I judge more quickly than on Facebook. In fact, if I’m not actually writing/responding to a friend, I spend my time passing judgments on people I barely know. “Damn that bridesmaid up-do is hideous, poor thing, I wonder if she realized?” “Wow, I can’t believe she’s dating that guy, she is way too good looking for him.” “I can’t believe that’s what that girl did with her life!”

They say, in yoga, “we resist what we need the most.” In five years of practicing yoga, I haven’t so much as scratched the surface of my judgmental behavior. I don’t even make excuses for avoiding it. I’ve never felt compelled to deal with judgment because I’d never really witnessed it come up on my mat.

Until recently when I made an important connection. I started to observe the way in which judgment interferes with what I’m trying to cultivate on my mat, the higher order stuff I want to take out of the studio and into the world. Specifically, I’ve noticed how judgment interferes with my desire to be a loving and compassionate person in my everyday life. As soon as I judge someone, I cut off the channel connecting us. I can no longer see their light and love, or, our similarities, or, the meaning of our interaction. All I experience is the judgment.

I’m a firm believer that as I am judging others, I am really judging myself. I am comparing myself either to an end of “at least I’m not like that” or “ugh, I wish I was more like that.” Either way, I am generating internal negativity. In the first instance, I have immediate guilt and shame for being compassionless and critical; in the second instance, I am denigrating my own value and failing to see the truth of my full beauty and wholeness. I’m undoing all the serenity and open-heartedness I sweat my butt off for.

It’s a lose, lose. Over and over again.

Once I could see how judgment blocked my other intentions, I started dedicating my yoga practice to non-judgment. Slowly, I could see the way in which my practice helped manifest my off-the-mat intentions.

I found myself judging about the same amount, but observing it more. The observation helped me slow down the process of disconnecting. Sometimes I’d recover just in time to balance out the judgment with a positive affirmation. “but damn that wedding is beautiful.” “He must make her so happy.” “Good for her for following her dreams.”

I’m still on Facebook and the judgments keep coming. But the awareness gives me the opportunity to witness the effects of judgment and resolve to do better.

Confessions of a Would-Be School Teacher

When I was eight years old, I wanted to go to Stanford. The world was like that for me: Overly abundant, incredibly privileged and wide open with infinite possibility. I had all of the opportunities in the world to explore who I was, what I was good at, and who I wanted to be. My dad is a surgeon. My friend’s parents were professionals and professors. We lived in a fancy neighborhood where the public schools won awards for everything from theater to academics. The only expectation in sight was tremendous success. Be the best, the brightest. Accept nothing less than perfection.

I always had different answers to the question: what do you want to be when you grow up?

My first answer was “Lawyer,” It was filmed for my first grade video (a revolutionary technology in 1991). Lawyer sounded fancy and important, and I liked that. As I grew up, a lot of adults told me I would make a good attorney. “You’re so articulate for your age.”

The older I got the more I wanted to be a teacher. My elementary school teachers were all extraordinary educators. They were creative, compassionate, energetic and incredibly effective. My most vivid memories are still the years between 3rd and 6th grade. Each of them had a tremendous impact on me, personally and academically.

My teenage years were kind of a blur of achievement, adolescent angst and family crisis. I had two priorities: Survive high school. Get to UCLA. I don’t think I ever considered what I wanted after that.

I went to college, found a passion for young people and community service, and felt what it’s like to impact someone else’s life. I learned my early education was exceptional, not typical. I learned that while I read Shakespeare and built “Poly-hedraville” in 5th grade, most elementary school kids did math problems on worksheets and read short stories edited by Houghton Mifflin. I just knew that if elementary school looked and felt like it did for me, every kid on the planet could love learning and thrive in the school environment. I knew if they loved learning they could empower themselves and their communities. I knew that education was the key to change. I wanted to change the world and I was convinced teaching was how I could do it.

I graduated from college almost 5 years ago and I’m a second year law student. Most days I wonder how it turned out that way.

I had my reasons. I wrote them in five different “personal statements” for my law school applications. I had to tell my boss at the job I left. I told my friends, my parents and anyone else who asked (an over-achiever’s favorite question), “what are you doing with your life?”

I told every one a different version of the story I’d made up for myself: I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to be an advocate for the under-served. I was tired of being powerless against systems and institutions I couldn’t control or penetrate. I wanted to do something meaningful, influential, important, etc.

Everything I said was true. Those ideas I had about law school persist, even today, as I write this, 2 years later.

The issue was never my dishonesty of expression, it was, and still is, my inability (unwillingness?) to be honest about everything I left UNexpressed: Fear that I wouldn’t live up to the imaginary expectation I’d created about what it meant to be successful in the world; A misguided sense of my purpose on the planet as an ambassador of an alternative female identity; A false impression that I had a responsibility to do something high-powered and hyper-intellectual with my life, as if all the privilege and opportunity (not to mention support and motivation) would go to waste if I did anything else.

The voice that wrote my personal statements and spoke eloquently about my ambitions was deep and strong, powerful and convincing. I cried the day I left my job at a high school, but assertively assured myself that it was all for a good cause. It was all part of the best story I ever told.

Up to a year and a half into law school I still hadn’t dropped the story. Depending on who wanted to know, I’d still rattle off one or more of the compelling and heroic reasons I went to law school. I’d tell some people “to advocate for young people”, others would get the domestic violence speech. In particularly vulnerable moments, I’d candidly say, “I have no idea” or “I want to help people, I just don’t know how, yet.” In the privacy of my most intimate relationships I’d confess my anxiety about being a lawyer, how I was “worried I lose my spunk and creativity” or that I’d never fit in.

And then about a month ago I had a breakdown, or what we sometimes call in yoga, a breakthrough.

I burst into tears while eating a peanut butter sandwich on the bottom floor of the building where I intern two days a week. I pulled myself together for about three hours and starting crying again as soon as I closed my car door. I cried and cried and cried. I cried all the way down wilshire blvd. I cried in my bedroom changing into my lululemon, and I cried again until I parked my car in santa monica for a friday evening yoga class. I hadn’t cried that much in years.

I cried because I’m sad and lonely and dislocated here in L.A. I cried because I’ve invested a lot of money, time, energy, etc, into an education I don’t ever want to use. I cried because I felt hopeless, and ashamed, and overwhelmed. I cried for all the other times I had refused to cry.

And when the tears dried up I felt vulnerable, honest and expressive.

I called my mom and talked for twenty minutes straight about everything from childhood expectations to grown-up responsibility. Pressure, excitement, fear, anxiety, resentment, hope.

In the end, I felt a sense of clarity wash over me, a feeling of “it’s going to be o.k,” “everything will work out,” and the echo of my yoga teacher’s most famous line: “you’re exactly where you should be.”

When the raw outpouring of emotion subsided, it was clear to me that my tears, my feelings and the accompanying realizations were little victories in an on-going battle I have with myself: My struggle to be soft and sensitive in a world that seems harsh and demanding, the struggle to be open and transparent, the struggle to be myself.

I face all of these things, every day, on my mat.

Most of the time, the combat is subtle and layered. It is nearly invisible beneath the experience of sensation, challenge and sweat. It sometimes masquerades as intense pressure in the hips, achy arms in warrior two or an inability to steady my mind.

I rarely begin a yoga class thinking: “today I will tackle my unwillingness to let people in” I rarely leave thinking, “heart: 3, ego: 2.”

But sure enough, in five years of practicing, the changes have come. I am a nicer person. I am less reactive in my daily life. Compared to my life before yoga, my anxiety-level is extremely low. And today, I can credit my yoga practice with allowing me to tap into the spaces between who I am and who I think I should be. It is in that space that I search for my true self.

They say in yoga “we are on a journey to become who we already are.” Lawyer, teacher, or something else entirely, I get on my mat every day to get explore the possibilities: societal, familial, cultural pressure aside. Just trying to figure it out, breath by breath. Knowing in the end, it’s not what I become, but who I am to myself and to others, that matters.

Love, Loss and Law School Finals

I started teaching yoga the same month I started law school. I remember the first time someone asked me what I do for a living in my “real life.” I’ll never forget the look on her face when I told her I was a first year law student. She looked confused and disoriented, like I had just told her I commute to the yoga studio from my palace on the moon, or something.

I made my life a priority. My friends, my yoga practice, teaching, learning, loving. For the most part, it was a wild success.

In late April my law school fantasy was interrupted by the most intellectually brutal fifteen days of my academic life: law school finals.

I studied for ten hours a day, barely ate, and hardly communicated with anyone who wasn’t also drowning in a spiritually sterile abyss of note cards and outlines. I had my mind on a single intention: get A’s. Worry about everything else later. My mom saw me in person, sometime around the half-way point, and was completely horrified by my appearance and demeanor.

After so many months of self-indulgent (mostly ego-driven) pride about my light-hearted and easy-going take on “1L,” I felt embarrassed and defeated.

The weirdest part of the experience was walking back into my life two weeks after I’d left it. I had a realization that I’d spent the last fifteen days occupying the planet with a beating heart and working lungs, without taking a single breath. How could I just skip through two entire weeks of my own life? How could I give up so much time in an experience (human) that only guarantees a limited amount of it?

This year, as fall semester finals lingered on the horizon, I hunkered down and prepared to turn off the world.

But the Universe had a different lesson this year. The mom of a close high school friend of mine was killed in a car accident a week before finals. It turned our entire community upside down. It broke my heart. I cried every time I thought of my dear friend and this horrible tragedy. In the days following the accident I heard incredible, beautiful stories: People reaching out from all over to comfort my friend, heartfelt messages posted to the obituary in the Sacramento Bee, endless offerings of love, support and compassion. It was remarkable. It reminded me how wonderful we all are. How when the worst, most unimaginable things happen, we shine as our purest, most radiant selves.

And it reminded me of something else: It’s so easy to get lost in the demands of the every day and miss opportunities to spread joy, love and happiness. For me, finals exemplifies the mindlessness that can sometimes overwhelm our sensitivity to the life we’re living. It highlights the ways in which our to-do lists, deadlines and endless stream of obligations can blur the line between existing and living. We can get so caught up in all that we have to accomplish, we lose our connection to what’s really important: the people, things and moments that fill us up. This fall, I found plenty of time to send loving thoughts, a hand written card and facebook messages to my friend. I found time to call my own mom to tell her I love and miss her. I found time to cherish the people I love most in my life.

I realized that even in the most demanding weeks of my life, I can make time to let my human self shine through my law student self. I realized that, no matter how busy we are, it is how we direct our attention that creates our experience. With a to do list three pages long, we can still make a choice to focus our energy on positivity, light, love.

Yoga taught me about the power of my attention. Yoga taught me that the world is coming from me, not at me, and that even in the midst of stress, anxiety and tremendous academic pressure, I am still in charge of my reactions. I can choose to shut down, disconnect and run away. And with only slightly more effort and a little conscious awareness, I can choose to be present, committed to happiness (even when it’s hard) and to ground myself in love instead of burying my heart in fear. Because each moment is too precious, and life is too indefinite, to sacrifice two whole weeks of living for a couple of lousy law school finals.

It Ain’t Like That

Right before I moved back to L.A. I was so pleased with my yoga practice. Each sequence felt like a fluid, beautiful dance of breath and energy. My body felt strong, my mind calm, and I was finally starting to understand the meaning of softness, stillness and heart-opening. Off the mat, I felt peaceful and serene even amidst a chaotic month-long whirlwind of change and transition. It was as if I had once and for all conquered my restlessness, anxiety and fear. Ahhh. Deep sigh of relief. Check enlightenment off the to-do list and move on with my life.

Wait. Not so fast.

A mere two months later, and most days I feel like I never starting practicing yoga in the first place. My mind drifts easily away from conversations and schoolwork; even deep breathes in chair pose can barely captivate my attention. I react easily and dramatically to ordinary things: traffic, my roommates dirty dishes, tripping as I climb the stairs of the law school when I’m late to class.

For the first time in four years I find myself glancing at the clock during triangle pose, rolling my eyes at the thought of 40 more minutes of “this.” I barely recognize myself. Where is that lively yogi who relished back-to-back vinyasa classes, long intense holds and opportunities to practice ujayi breath in her every day life?

I drag myself to the yoga studio every day hoping for an awakening. Maybe when I wiggle my fingers out of savasana I will be reborn as my former self. Maybe the teacher will say just the thing I need to hear, right in the moment I need to hear it.

I stumble out of the yoga studio feeling defeated and depressed. No awakening. no wisdom. I’ve got nothing but sweaty, frizzy hair and a million criticisms: of the teacher, the practice, even my fellow yogis.

Not surprisingly, this unbalanced version of myself doesn’t wait for me on my mat each day. She goes to class, shops at whole foods and shows up, over and over again, wherever I go in my life. The more present I get to my energetic changes, the more frustrated I feel. I am filled with self-doubt and self-judgment: how can this be happening? I thought I had it all figured out? I had balance, stability, resilience and strength. How could four years of effort and intention disappear so quickly, almost overnight?

For those of us who have spent years measuring our life in achievements, it is a difficult pattern to break. We plan. We work. We get what we want and start the process over again, slowly running down the list of things to do to make our lives seem worthwhile: Finish school. Get the promotion. Find a spouse. Have a baby. Buy a house. We arrive on our yoga mat for the first time the same way arrive everywhere: with a plan (it varies among us and may even change over time). Get fit. Relieve Stress. Attain enlightenment.

But that’s the thing about our yoga practice: It ain’t like that. It refuses to conform. It won’t be confined to a structure, set of rules or steps of progression. It’s the most innovative teacher in the world. It is constantly changing with our environment, experiences and needs. It recognizes where we are by mirroring every aspect of our life. It asks us to recommit to it in every moment. It never rests, and it cannot be accomplished.

Coming to this realization requires rearranging the basic framework that governs my entire life. How can I be so addicted to something that has no defining moment, no pre-determined ladder of ascension, no awards for “best” or “most distinguished”, not even a “most improved?” There is no degree, no finish line and no one else to compete with. It’s just you, your breath and a practice of observation.

The miraculous thing, in spite of all this, is that yoga has had the biggest role in generating actual happiness in my life. All of my achievements can’t do anything to quell anxiety, remove fear and create space and sanity in times of difficulty and distress. In fact, it is often the pressure to “do everything” and “be the best” that creates the stress in the first place. The challenge is not getting attached to the feeling of succeeding at yoga. It is tempting to dwell in self-satisfaction during periods when yoga feels effortless and easy, but it’s a sensation that can quickly transform into disappointment and frustration when we feel insecure and unsteady again. And so it is. Our life, our practice our journey through ups and downs, joy and sadness, love and loss. As one of my teachers frequently reminds us, life is a wave-learn to surf.

Our yoga practice reminds us that happiness and fulfillment cannot be awarded, then framed like a diploma on the office wall (then transported to L.A. and hung up again). These are things that require our constant effort and attention. When we struggle emotionally, spiritually, financially, etc. it is hard to give our attention to anything. It feels like failure. Other times, we struggle less. Our attention is soft and steady. It feels like victory. The challenge is to learn to accept both feelings with the knowledge that neither is permanent, nor defining, maybe not even “real.”

For years I have told people they should do yoga because it has solved everything that is wrong with my life. But the truth is, yoga can’t solve anything. What it has actually done is give me the tools that help me deal with every day issues that make my life more complicated than it needs to be. Acquiring the tools is one thing, using them is another. Since our lives are constantly changing, we are perpetually in need of a new set. It requires patience. It requires faith. It demands that we keep practicing even when it is unappealing, challenging, painful. We must keep showing up, and trying to figure it out.

When my strength and stability return, I know it will not be forever. There is no destination on the spiritual path, only stretches of freedom, clarity and bliss before the traffic backs up again and the tension returns.

For now, I will take one breath at a time. I will try not to reward myself for peace, nor degrade myself in moments of anger and frustration. I will go back to my mat because there are tools to be discovered and lessons to be learned, and L.A. could use a few more deep breaths.

Yoga for Over-Achievers

I started practicing yoga my senior year of college. After 22 years of moving quickly, constantly achieving and believing in the American myth of staying busy, I was reluctant (to say the least) to try something I associated with slow movement and soft flute music.

One of my friends told me I should try yoga because it would make me less “frenetic.” “It will help you manage your ‘L.A. energy.'” Frenetic? What? I’m not frenetic. I’m from Northern California for God’s sake?! Jerk.

I think I went to my first class to just prove him wrong.

It’s been four years since I first stepped on a yoga mat. That first class was gentle and non-confrontational. My teacher had long pigtails and sang in savasana. I walked out of the John Wooden Center that morning with a feeling I couldn’t describe. Maybe it was stillness, maybe it was peace. Whatever it was, I wanted more of it, right away.

I went twice a week my last quarter at UCLA. 10 weeks of breathing and bliss.
When the year ended, I went back to my other life. I was a runner, an eliptical rider, an ipod listening, distraction-seeking gym-goer. When I had time, I liked to rollerblade with my mom on the American River bike trail. I had been forcing myself to “workout” every day since I was sixteen.

I stumbled into a power yoga class for the first time in the Fall of 2006. My friend was doing “30 days in L.A,” a self governed challenge where he tried something he’d never done in Los Angeles, every day for a month. He discovered a “donation-based” yoga studio, and dragged me and my roommates along for the experience.

I was an unsuspecting student. I had come straight from my weekend coaching job. I was wearing soccer shorts and a baggy t-shirt. I must have borrowed a mat.
My first class was excruciating. I fell out of half-moon, probably seven times. I remember thinking, damn. That was intense.

I’m not sure what drew me back to Santa Monica Power Yoga, but I remember a distinct moment, it was probably my six or seventh class, where something clicked. I walked out of the studio that night feeling like I had discovered something extraordinary. Something that somehow, was going to change my life.

And it certainly did.

It evolved for me the way it does for many people: at first the physical practice was addicting. My body was strong and fit in a way I hadn’t experienced. The more I got on the mat, the more I appreciated the 90 minutes I spent “out of my head.” I started to look forward to it, then I started to depend on it. It was a workout, a coping mechanism, an escape. It was more than I ever could have imagined.

I stopped going to the gym.

Eventually, I went beyond the physical practice and started to connect yoga to experiences in my every day life. I could feel myself become more calm, more balanced and less reactive. I was lighter, happier and more in control of the experience of my own life. The community of people that popped up around me were likewise, happy, centered and loving. Yoga was incredible.

My practice was put to the test last Fall when I started Law School. Everything you ever hear about the first year of law school is awful. I heard warnings, horror stories and plenty of “good lucks.” By the time I actually made it to my first day of school, I had every reason imaginable not to be there. I was genuinely prepared to surrender my happiness, free-time and sanity to the cause of becoming a lawyer, and it quickly became clear that many people in law school, do just that.

This blog was born, in some ways, out of my experience as a first year law student. In other ways, it has been years in the making. In my life before law school I was an over-achieving, high-strung, hyper-anxious type-A student. I can remember losing sleep over a presentation and pulling an all-nighter on a project as far back as the 3rd grade.

Strangely, for the first time, I found a sense of ease and comfort as a law student. I learned to take a deep breath before responding to a professor’s challenge. I learned to focus on the work that was immediately in front of me, instead of getting overwhelmed by the volume of work looming in the future. I learned to concentrate on my own experience, and tune out the stories of my classmates who loved to complain, brag, whine, react, compete, etc. Perhaps most importantly, I learned how to detach my self worth and identity from my achievements as a law student.

Everything I ‘learned’ that year I had practiced first, on my mat. The miracle of my first year was really three years in the making. Three years of showing up. Three years of breathing. Three years of first struggling, then surrendering. The repetitive process, that as yogis we come to depend on, to bring balance back into our lives.

It’s hard to tell these days whether I’m still an ‘over-achiever.’ Sometimes I still refer to myself as one out of habit, or conditioning, or ego, or something else. Yoga has given me powerful insight into what it means to over-achieve, and the reasons why some of us Type-A, go-getter, high-energy types, do what we do the way we do it.

This blog is my practice of “doing less” and “being more.” It is a reminder to myself that love, compassion and acceptance should take priority over achievement, both for myself and the people around me. It is my exploration of the day to day challenges that face someone who is trying to find a balance between “getting what I want” and “being who I want to be,” on, and off the mat.