“Sharing the deep stuff.”

Spring is beautiful in Southern California.

Even more so because it starts in January.

There are beach days and long bike rides; Ambitious hikes and lunchtime picnics; Occasionally, there’s a sweater, on the patio, during early brunch.

I am choosing between a beachfront cruise on a rented cycle, and playing soccer for the first time in 9 years.

I throw on some cotton shorts with a questionably small in-seam, and head to the field.

I play thirty seconds of intense defense at our makeshift goal line and feel like I’m going to pass out. When, after five minutes, I haven’t caught my breath, I wonder if I’m really going out like this. Because it doesn’t seem as epic, or heroic, as it should be.

I survive the near-death encounter and, by the ninth or tenth minute, I start to get the hang of it. I’m winded and my legs feel heavy but my body remembers the movements, the touch of the ball. I experience the familiar surge of adrenaline in a 50/50 tackle with someone twice my size. It’s hot. And sweaty. And awesome.

At halftime, I pass around a batch of my homemade granola and some fresh oranges I sliced before the game. On the walk back to my apartment, I describe the afternoon to my best friend.  I yell and wave my hands as if my gestures will enhance his understanding of my enthusiasm. With anyone else it wouldn’t, but with him, it does.

We make plans to cap off my perfect “Spring” day with dinner and “The Descendants.” I typically resist the local pressure to see deep, moving films, but agree to do just about anything if Nick suggests it. Early in our friendship, without protest or hesitation, I paid eighteen dollars to see Jackass 3D in the middle of the day.

Jackass. 3. D.

Dinner is airy and entertaining. Nick’s sister and her husband are visiting, they join us with two of their friends. We exchange perspectives on the virtues and vices of living in Los Angeles. The female friend announces, and elaborates on, her detest for Dyson hand dryers. She gives an impassioned speech entitled, “long live the paper towel.”

Later, she discloses that she works for a paper distribution company.

Nick and I are still giggling about the finer points of public restroom hand drying when the movie starts.

I proceed to cry for two hours straight.

I need a pile of paper towels to soak up the tears.

I manage to pull myself together just as we step into the light of the lobby. I wonder if the severity of my pink, swollen eyes is magnified by the reflection of fluorescent lights on red carpet.

Nick graciously guides me through the “good nights” and hurries me out to the car. He senses an impending emotional explosion, any minute.

Without a lot of dialogue he drives to the coast. We park ourselves on a bench in Northern Santa Monica, overlooking the Ocean. With little probing, it comes pouring out. At first, I don’t know why I’m impacted so much by a George Clooney performance, but as the words come,  they make sense when I hear them.

I talk about the pain in the movie and the pain in my life. How our pain connects us. It’s something deep we all share. Pain has the potential to bring understanding, and love and compassion, but we hide it and shame it away. We fear being vulnerable and exposing our darkness to others. We answer, “I’m fine” to the question, “how are you?” and put on a happy face. We do our best to make it invisible, and irrelevant, in our every day lives.

There’s that scene with George Clooney and the annoying teenage boyfriend of his daughter, in the middle of the night. The boyfriend shares that he lost his mother in a car accident. Even in the dim lighting, through a flat screen, you can feel the transformation. George Clooney looks down at this greasy, punkish kid, who he’s resented for half the movie, and realizes, their pain is the same.

That they are the same.

And the rest of us are too.

I tell Nick about all the times and ways and reasons I’ve hid my pain. How the tears I cried in the movie theater were some of the ones I saved up during six years of never crying. About anything. Certainly not during some stupid movie.

Definitely not in public.

There’s a moment, in the crying and sharing, where I witness my courage. My own transformation. I realize that my “unwillingness to be vulnerable” and my “inability to open up” are old stories that no longer rule my life. That it’s me, standing there, in the crisp night air, balling. Revealing my deepest, darkest stuff to someone who’s opinion of me I hold in high regard.

Maybe the highest.

For the last four years, I’d been battling pretty hard to escape the idea of myself as closed up and unemotional. To shed the self-imposed identity, I had a feeling, was holding me back.

I started teaching yoga when I was 25. I approached it like everything else in my life: A task to study, then master, then be the best at.  I studied my favorite teachers to identify what made them “good” at teaching. I practiced constantly and held myself to a rigid standard of perfection. The sequence, the music, my voice, the message. All perfect.

But my no-fail formula for success didn’t work as well as applied to yoga teaching as it did to everything else.

And over and over again I kept hearing, “I want to see more of you.” and “open up your heart.”

The truth is, at the time, I didn’t even know what that meant.

I struggled through it for a while and eventually quit teaching. With all of the achieving I was doing, I didn’t have time to tackle the seemingly unsolvable spiritual mysteries of my soul.

I made my yoga teaching comeback leading classes for high school kids in the San Fernando valley. It was the same month I saw “The Descendants.” In fact, it might have been the same week. Then, about a year later, I mustered the courage to teach adults again. At my home studio, in my home town.

Last weekend I stood in the back of the same studio where I taught my first class. Standing near the stereo, where I’d told so many light-hearted stories about other people’s lives, I watched a thin white guy struggle through a two-minute warrior two. He had a miserable look on his face, like he’d gone for a 10 mile run at sunrise and took my class as a way to unwind on a Sunday morning. His knees were wobbling and the space between his eyebrows steadily decreased as the tension in his face spread to his shoulders, and rippled down his spine.

“Oh god. he hates this.”

As my students hit the floor and land in a deep hip opener, I cringe as I watch the poor guy struggle to get “comfortable” hovering over his right shin.

I close my eyes, and feel my feet, and just like that night on the Ocean, my mouth is moving and my heart is speaking. And the words make sense when I hear them.

When the class is over I see the guy with the  well-defined calf muscles approach me. I squeeze my eyebrows together and prepare for the worst. I fear I’m too vulnerable right now to hear whatever scathing feedback is coming my way.

Before I can duck out of the studio, we’re face to face.

“I just wanted to thank you for sharing all that deep stuff.” “It hit me pretty hard and I really appreciate it.” “I know that’s not easy to do, but it means a lot.”

Pain is something we all share. A place where we can really connect. Where we find understanding. Compassion. And love. When we let go of fear and shame and resist the temptation to bury it, we give other people permission to do the same.

Thanks for sharing the deep stuff.

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.