Attention and Intention

I first began practicing yoga regularly in 1999, and for much of my first few years of practice, I took more classes from Rolf Gates than from anyone else.

Rolf doesn’t cut the familiar profile of a yoga teacher: he’s an ex-Army Ranger, marathoner and wrestler who is built like an NFL running back, one for whom physical hardship is something to chuckle at. When I’d be straining 30 minutes into a class and Rolf would smile and bellow, “We have miles to go before we rest!” I’d know that Rolf had been there and done that, and I’d remind myself to toughen up a bit.

But although the physical toughness was what you’d first see when you met Rolf, he taught a deeply reflective and introspective class. The son of six generations of ministers, Rolf followed his time in the Army with a stint as a social worker and a substance abuse counselor. All of this came together in a yoga class that might have seemed to be about sweating like crazy and the serenity that followed, but really was about wisdom and perspective. Regulars at his class used to call it “the church of Rolf.”

Rolf and I both left Boston years ago, and I miss his class, so I’m thankful that I can now take his class virtually, online.

I took one of these classes the other day, and I noticed that, as Rolf has continued to grow and deepen as a teacher, his wisdom has become both simpler and more profound. I experience Rolf as a student of life, someone who is winnowing down what he is learning, finding his way to the essence of his truth.

In the class that I took, the mantra Rolf kept repeating was, “As you breathe, know that you are breathing.”

Indeed.

This phrase stuck with me the next morning as I made my way to the train on my  commute – walking too fast as I quickly checked the weather on my phone, rushing and distracted. And then I looked up, saw the blue sky, the bright white clouds and the swaying trees, and thought, “When I walk, shouldn’t I know that I am walking?” Of course I should.

This is about attention and intention.

Attention is the choice to focus my energies on the action I’m engaged in. If I’m walking to the train, I can bring my attention to that action, and experience the world more fully. This gives the space to allow what I’m doing penetrate my mind and my body.

Intention both precedes and follows attention. I can use my intention as the source of the actions that I take. And intention can follow attention since the act of reflection can give rise to a new set of intentions in a powerful set of connecting loops: I set a purpose in a given moment, and, when I am fully present in that moment, I can let that experience guide my next intention – a loop that is both deliberate and open.

What I’m realizing is that I’ve come to the point in my life where I’ve got no more time to squeeze out of my days. There are no big breakthroughs in efficiency on the horizon. If that’s the case – if I’m not going to uncover any more time – then the only leverage left to me is around how I spend that time. Sure, I may still be able to shift how I spend a few hours here and there, but the big remaining shift, one that I’m sure will take a lifetime to unfold, is around the quality of attention and intention I bring to each and every moment.

Bhava Yoga, then and now

Over the holidays, I went with my family up to Okemo, Vermont for four days of skiing. It was a little icy for the first few days, but we had a great trip.

As an experiment in family travel management, we decided to break up the drive with a quick overnight stop in Brattleboro, VT. One of our great parenting discoveries is that any hotel with a pool and free waffles for breakfast is, according to the kids, “totally awesome,” so we stay at a lot of Hampton Inns on family vacations.

Weeks after we’d made this plan, my wife reminded me that Peter Rizzo, a master yoga teacher whose classes we used to take on the Lower East Side of New York City, had moved his studio to Brattleboro a number of years ago. Could we arrange things so that one or both of us could take a class with Peter during our 18 hours in Brattleboro?

Somehow, it worked out. Last Sunday we left New York around 1:30pm and managed to pull into Brattleboro at 4:50pm, ten minutes before Peter’s 5pm class. My wife spilled out of the car and went up to Peter’s two-hour class while I took the kids to the (tiny, cold) pool at the Hampton Inn. That class was so great that I then took Peter’s 9am class the next morning.

Peter is an exceptional yoga teacher on a number of levels. Yes, he’s technically amazing, but what really matters is that he keeps you calm and helps you get to a non-striving place, with great reminders like (after putting you into a crazy poze) “just by looking at how far you do or don’t get into hanumanasana (full split) I could tell nothing at all about how advanced your yoga practice is. In fact, I can tell you from my personal experience that there’s no relationship between how close my head gets to my shin and how enlightened I am.”

Indeed.

Time works in funny ways, and when my wife and I spoke to Peter that Sunday evening after the 5pm class, he remembered that we used to go to Bhava Yoga when it was on East 13th street. We said it was “a while ago,” and he said, “Yes, that was 11 years ago.” Where did the time go?

Though our interaction with Peter was fleeting, there was something special in that moment of reconnection. Peter gave each of us the gift of a deep, grounding, inspiring yoga class, and a glimpse of the community he has created. There was also something pensive and reflective – and perhaps even a flicker of pride – in Peter’s eyes as he contemplated the 11 years since we’d last seen him, the logistics we must have managed to make the class happen (the drive, the kids). What I hope he understood was that, even though we’d taken no more than 30 classes with him so many years ago, he was a part of our lives and he had made a lasting impact on us. I hope that, in seeing us, we helped him realize how many other people there are out there in the world, some of whom he hasn’t seen for a decade or more, who he’s also impacted in profound ways.

I think this is how it is for all of us: we hear back only a fraction of the ways that we have touched people, moved them, inspired them, and lifted them up when they were down. But that impact is out there, it is real, and it is our living legacy.

One of the easiest gifts to give is to find the opportunities to remind people how important they have been to us, and to thank them for it.

Here’s wishing you a great start to your year in 2015.

Strengths, and Weaknesses

I got back on my yoga mat this morning for the first time in a long, long time.   I used to have a regular practice, but my days keep getting fuller, my kids are going to bed later, and time is squeezed.

Yoga is a healing practice, and lately, without yoga, I’ve been walking around only noticing the things in my body that hurt a bit: my left knee, thanks to a torn ACL 20 years ago; one of the joints in my left foot; my right Achilles tendon that I tweaked a bit playing squash; the rotator cuff on my right shoulder that is still only back to 90% three years after an over-zealous week of vacation-tennis. As I walk down the street, I cycle through a broken record of “knee, toe, heel, shoulder….” as I notice the discomforts.

On the yoga mat, things feel a little different. I had a yoga teacher years ago, a guy named Rolf Gates, who, only joking a little bit, would demonstrate a flowing series of yoga poses and say, in his booming voice, “Now, say to yourself while doing these poses, ‘I am the most beautiful yogi in the world!’” It was silly, but it also made us all move with a little more poise, a little more grace. Being on the mat is a chance to feel more – to feel the parts that ache a bit, sure, but also to feel yourself being strong, graceful, and balanced.

It is so easy to walk around feeling only what hurts, to feel only the parts that aren’t working. We hear feedback about something we did wrong, and that becomes our whole story for a day, a week, sometimes even months or years. The perceived faults and shortcomings become everything, the throbbing knee or aching tendon that are the only things in our consciousness; while the things that went great, the thing that come easy to us, all of the areas where we shine, fade away.

Let us recognize the areas where we are still falling short, our niggling injuries that hold us back. But let us never let them eclipse all of the things that make us special, the things that are in clear view to everyone except – sometimes – us.

Damn handstands

Doug Swenson

I recently went to a two-and-a-half hour yoga workshop with Doug Swenson.  Doug teaches Ashtanga yoga, a style I don’t normally practice, and the workshop was pretty advanced.

On top of that, with a busy life and two young kids, my own yoga practice has become intermittent.  So maybe I’d have been better off going to a regular class, but there I was.  And by about 10 minutes into the workshop, it was clear that about half the students were very regular / advanced practitioners: handstands and crazy balances and strength, flexibility and grace abounded.

And so began a quiet, almost inaudible, pernicious voice-over in my own head, “Well, this is clearly all they do…practice yoga all day long.  Don’t they have other priorities?  Who does she think she is anyway, showing off like that at the start of class?”  Over and over and over and over, getting louder and louder and louder.

That voice in my head is the voice of fear.   Fear of not being good enough.  Fear of being embarrassed and of standing out.  It’s the voice of adolescence.  It’s the voice that worries about fitting in.  It’s the voice that thinks others are judging, maybe even laughing just a little bit.

This voice is a prison.

And it’s so powerful because no one else hears it.  So you can pretend that it’s not out there, that it doesn’t have you in its clutches, that it’s not directing your choices, even when it is.

In the yoga class, I kept on breathing, I acknowledged the voice and the fear, and it (mostly) lost its power.  Not completely, but mostly.

And that’s a start.

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The fundraising forward bend

I’ve been wondering about why “the ask” for philanthropic funding can be the hardest, most awkward point in the meeting.  Here are some thoughts from somewhere else entirely…

Try this experiment: bend at your waist and, in a relaxed fashion, try to touch your toes (or however close you happen to get, it doesn’t matter).   Then, with no extra effort at all, take four deep breaths, focusing on exhaling.  I promise you by your fourth breath you’ll be a lot closer to your toes than you were when you started.

What’s going on here?  Our nervous systems are well-adapted to protection, so any time the body is in a position that is new or unfamiliar, our sympathetic nervous system tightens muscles to protect us from going into positions that might hurt us.  It’s your body saying “this seems risky…I’m going to tighten up to stay safe.”

The deep breaths tell our minds and our bodies that everything is OK and that we’re not going to get hurt, and the protection reflex passes, which is why it just takes a few breaths to get closer to our toes.

“The ask” can make your body’s protective/panic response kick in.  When you’re new to it, it feels like a standing-at-the-side-of-a-freezing-cold-pool-about-to-jump-in moment that causes so much anticipation that you freeze up – and in so doing make the person you’re talking to freeze up as well.  “Here we go!” your subconscious screams.  “This is probably going to be terrible!”

How do you develop the confidence not to panic?  How do you find ease in this uncomfortable situation?

The only answer I see comes from recognizing the response, and putting yourself in the situation that makes you feel that way as MUCH as possible (tough, I know), and then find what it takes for you not to panic (better yet, shine). You don’t get there by starting at the deepest end of the pool with the coldest water. You start small and build up, and then keep on pushing yourself into situations that ARE hard, but you teach yourself to act easy.  You teach yourself that everything is going to be OK.  You learn to take the thing that you once feared, that once was difficult, and to breathe into it and be your best, most confident self even then. (Sure, there’s plenty of technique and tactics too, but recognizing and addressing the panic response is part of the answer).

Two closing observations: you won’t get better at this without putting yourself in that situation more and more often.  And you’ll definitely bungle some things along that way.

(That’s OK too. How else are you going to learn?)

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