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The 5th Discipline Of Yoga: Making Space For My Soul

Sometimes it feels like my brain is broken. Like there is a disconnect between what I know I should do, and actually doing it. And between what I should think, and what I actually think. For example, last night I promised ZiZi that I would wash her school t-shirt, so she could wear it on today’s field trip to the zoo. I left in in the middle of the hallway, so I wouldn’t forget.

I walked around that bright red shirt twenty times before I went to bed, yet I still forgot to wash it. Because my brain is broken. And because my brain is broken, my 8 year old went on a field trip to the zoo in a shirt stained with last week’s peanut butter. And in my broken brain, I am thinking that the chaperones on the field trip, parents that I see all the time, must think that I am the worst mom ever.

I know I they probably don’t think that, and that dirty laundry does not make me a bad mom, but I do think this way sometimes. Thankfully, I have confirmed that I am not the only one with a broken brain, and other people also have these feelings from time to time.

The good news is that there is a remedy for broken brain syndrome.  All we have to do is create a little space between what the world thinks we should be, and who we really are.

This is what the fifth limb (discipline) of yoga, pratyahara, is all about. The word pratyahara is sanskrit for “withdrawal”, and the practice of pratyahara teaches us how to create space between ourselves and our attachments to the relentless chatter of the world. It makes us aware of the stories circulating around us, and opens us to the possibility that some of them are not true.

Pratyahara is difficult to explain, if you have not experienced it before.  It’s more of a belief, and a feeling, than something we do. When we believe that we can quiet our minds, we make it possible to tune out the chatter that separates us from God.

It’s that thing that happens in savasana, when you forget that there are other people in the room. You know that you are physically there, but you are not there. You are floating in space, and it feels free, and nothing else matters besides staying in that space where you are neither here nor there. Just like any other discipline, pratyahara becomes more rewarding, the more frequently we practice it.

Knowing how to create this space between us and the world is especially helpful, as we navigate the messy details of our busy lives. Like when I gave birth to three children in 39 months, and they were all in diapers at the same time. My days were a blur of bottles, music classes, homemade baby food, and Baby Einstein.

I wanted to be the perfect mom, but when you have three tiny humans that are totally dependent on you, it is impossible to be perfect! Somebody was always crying, I was on sensory overload, and my broken brain couldn’t figure out which way was up. People were quick to give me the stink eye if my babies cried at the store, even though I was clearly outnumbered. Strangers gave me breastfeeding advice, as if it was something I couldn’t figure out on my own. It was all so overwhelming, and withdrawal from the chatter was the only way I could begin make sense of the chaos.

When I needed a break, I would strap the girls into whatever bouncy seat or johnny jumper would hold them safely for a few minutes, and stretch on the floor, while they watched Dora. If my husband was home, I would escape to the basement and meditate. And, when I was lucky enough to have a sitter, I would find a yoga class and get my pratyahara on in public.

Little by little, I chose to make space for my soul. I learned to recognize the difference between what was essential, and what was not, and got really good at saying “no” to anything, and anyone, that might make me feel less than enough. I realized that I don’t have to be everything to everyone, and sometimes “no” is the right answer for me, even if it’s not what other people want to hear.

My kids are older now, somehow things are even busier, and my brain feels just as broken as it did when they were babies. I kinda doubt that my brain will every get fully unbroken, at least not as long as we still have kids in the house. But it does find peace when I practice yoga, and it’s good to know that peace will always be there for me, as long as I remember to make space for my soul.

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God’s Hour

This is not a blog about religion. At least I never intended it to be.

But the more I have written, the more I have realized that it is impossible to separate my faith from what I know to be true about this crazy healthy life.

When I began my quest to get healthy, I was mostly focused on external appearances. I wanted to lose weight and look great in a bathing suit. It was a self-centered approach to fitness that ebbed and flowed–a constant struggle that left me feeling like I could never quite measure up. No matter how hard I tried, I could not sustain pursuits that were all about me.

After I had kids, however, I found new reasons to get healthy, that were more focused on serving God’s purposes for my life. My focus shifted from pursuing my needs, to the meeting the needs of my children. I wanted to be able to pick them up and carry them, when they grew tired of walking to the zoo. I wanted to have enough energy to play games with them after school. I hoped to be someone they admired. And I especially wanted to live long enough to meet their children.

Ten years later, I still feel all of these things, and I am keenly aware of the tremendous responsibility that has been entrusted to me. I want to be a great Mom to them, so I have to put the oxygen mask on myself first. In order to do this, I have to get right with God spiritually, as well as physically and emotionally.

To do that, I spend at least 60 minutes each day investing in the body that He created for me. It doesn’t have to happen all at once–it can be broken into smaller time commitments–but an hour each day is what He needs from me, to help me fulfill my purpose in life.

God’s Hour

Here are the daily disciplines that have helped me sustain a healthy lifestyle, while juggling family and a career:

1. Exercise (30 minutes)

Corinthians reminds us that we are not our own, and we are to “Glorify God in your body.” Our bodies are gifts from God, and should be treated as such. Just as diamonds are created through heat and pressure, we must also use resistance to become the treasure that God wants us to be. Thirty minutes of vigorous, resistance-based exercise each day is necessary, for us to be our best for God. For me, this means yoga, but it might mean something different for you. I don’t think it matters what we call it, as long as we intentionally connect with our physical body, for the purpose of building strength and overcoming resistance, every single day.

2. Nourish (20 minutes)

God gave us everything we need to fuel our bodies when He created the earth, yet we eat more packaged foods, than the kinds that come straight from the farm to the table. The foods God created are rich in phytonutrients, amino acids, and minerals that our bodies need to remain in good health, and should be the foundation of our diet. These foods also take more time to prepare, but this is the sacrifice we must make, to be in good health. Taking time to prepare and enjoy food from the earth glorifies God.

3. Meditate (5 minutes)

Psalm 46 tells us “Be still and know that I am God.” It is essential to put ourselves in “time out” once a day, so that we can reconcile with who God is, what He has done, and what He is capable of. Meditation is the act of surrendering our mind, body and spirit, so He can fill us up with His purposes. This can be as simple as closing our eyes, and quieting our mind, or we can meditate on specific concepts from scripture (heaven, love, or peace, for example). This practice is best done sitting on the floor, but can also be practiced laying on the ground, with our arms at our sides, and palms facing up (as long as you don’t let it turn into a Scooby Nap).

4. Pray (5 minutes)

Pray throughout the day, with the intention of seeking His guidance. Get in the habit of praying upon waking, before meals, and at bedtime, as well as any other times that you want to connect with Him. Simple prayers work just as well as complex prayers…God knows our hearts, and does not need fancy words or explanations. This practice is supported in Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” We renew our minds by considering what God needs from us, asking Him for support, and practicing gratitude, in the form of prayer, throughout the day.

5. Practice discernment (takes no time at all)

Erma Bombeck once said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I have not a single bit of talent left, and I could say, I used everything You gave me.”  We must ask ourselves every day, “What is happening around me, and what does God want me to do with it?” When we practice awareness, we create more opportunities to use our talents for God’s purposes, and draw closer to Him in the process.

What do you think? We can talk about it, if you’d like. Leave your thoughts in the comments below, or send me a private message through the Facebook page for My Crazy Healthy Life.

Namaste,

Amber

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Don’t Stop Believin’

dont-stop“The ability to believe is the most powerful force at mankind’s disposal. Everything that has been done, for good or bad, was done because someone believed it could be or should be done. Every problem that has been solved was solved because someone believed it could be or should be solved.” ~ Andy Stanley

I heard the most amazing sermon this morning at Buckhead Church. Andy Stanley spoke about the power of belief, and it literally brought me to tears.

Most of it had little to do with Jesus, God, or the parables. It was all about human nature. Andy talked about how the ability to believe is the most powerful force known to man. About how we constantly look for evidence to support what we believe to be true. And about how much easier it is to believe, when we live in a community that shares our beliefs.

Perhaps most importantly, Andy said that belief is the tool that God gave us, to become who we are supposed to be. We can use it for good, or we can use it for bad, but make no mistake…belief is a weapon.

I’m sure my jaw was on the floor, the whole time. In 35 minutes, Andy summarized all that I know to be true about this crazy healthy life.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with yoga, since I committed to write about yoga every day this month. The power of belief has everything to do with yoga, because yoga gives us disciplines that sharpen our beliefs, and teach us to use them purposefully.

Andy’s sermon will be online at the Buckhead Church website sometime this week, for those who want to check it out.

In the meantime, consider what you believe. Do your beliefs ground you, and allow you to live authentically? The truth of who you are is already within you, waiting to be revealed, and it starts with being sure of your beliefs.

Photo: wp.streetwise.co

Happy National Yoga Month!

Did you know that September is National Yoga Month?

I never imagined, when I took my first yoga class in September of 1998, that there would ever be a National Yoga Anything. Or that I would someday teach yoga, yet alone write about it.

But here I am, fifteen years later, living my yoga, with a small business, and a blog that is almost a year old. Looking back makes me profoundly grateful for this powerful practice, that transformed my entire life.

At first I thought yoga was just an exercise. That’s what it felt like for the first few years I practiced. But, the more I learned, the more I realized that yoga bled into other areas of my life. Yoga made me happy, and healed my mind, body and spirit, in surprising ways.

In the past fifteen years, yoga has helped me lose weight, get in shape, sleep better, heal my body, eat better, deepen my Christian faith, and live with authenticity and purpose. I love this practice so much, that I find it hard to do it justice with words.

In honor of National Yoga Month, I will post a little insight about yoga every day in September. I hope that sharing my experiences will inspire you, and everyone else who reads this blog, to add a little more yoga to your lives.

Because, I believe, with all my heart, that everyone needs yoga.

It just makes so much sense. To be sure of what we believe, live skillfully, strengthen our muscles, create space in our bodies, quiet our minds, breathe with intention, practice mediation, and connect with God. How could that be anything but good?

When we are born, we arrive straight from God. We are perfect, just the way He made us. As our separation from God increases, and we adapt to life on earth, we lose bits and pieces of our original innocence and completeness. The Eight Limbs (branches) of Yoga teach us how to become whole again, and draw us closer to Him.

The Eight Limbs

The eight limbs of yoga are as follows:

  1. Yama (universal morality)
  2. Niyama (personal observances)
  3. Asana (physical postures)
  4. Pranayama (breathwork)
  5. Pratayahara (control of the senses)
  6. Dharana (concentration and personal awareness)
  7. Dhyana (meditation, for the puspose of seeking God)
  8. Samadhi (oneness with God)

Like most Westerners, I began my practice on the third limb, asana, in a hatha yoga class at a health club. I was lucky that my instructor, Joy, had ten years of experience (which was rare at that time), and did share some pranayama and meditation. But I didn’t really get it. I thought the bhakti breathing was weird, and savasana made me anxious.

I loved the workout, though, so I took a lot of classes at the health club, and practiced with Steve Ross on Oxygen’s Inhale TV Show, when I couldn’t get to the club. It was just exercise to me, for a long time.

Four years went by, before I learned about the eight limbs of yoga. As a committed Christian, I had been afraid to explore yoga philosophy, in the early days of my practice. I had no choice, however, when I decided to become a yoga instructor. I had to embrace all of it.

Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised by what I discovered.

This awesome yogi named Patanjai was the first to record yoga philosophy, about 2000 years ago. It was one of the first things we learned in my yoga teacher training course in 2002, and it felt like finding the missing piece of a puzzle. Yoga was suddenly more than a workout, and it would soon become a way of life.

It occured to me that I had sort of learned yoga backwards, and wished I had understood the Eight Limbs, before I met my mat.

For those who are new to yoga, I suggest starting at the beginning, with the yamas and the niyamas.

About the Yamas and the Niyamas

The yamas and niyamas are observances that teach us to live skillfully. They are as follows:

The Yamas:

1. Ahimsa (non-violence)

2. Satya (truth)

3. Asteya (non-stealing, or non-cheating)

4. Bramacharya (self-restraint and moderation in all that you do)

5. Aparigraha (non-coveting, non-competitiveness)

The Niyamas:

1. Saucha (purity)

2. Santosha (contentment)

3. Tapas (discipline)

4. Svadhyaya (self-study)

5. Ishawar-pranidhana (surrender to God)

During the five months of my teacher training at Peachtree Yoga Center, we explored the yamas and niyamas, as they relate to yoga practice. I was also participating an intense 36 week Bible study at the time, and would read my Bible during the breaks. It was such an interesting juxtaposition, to study the yamas and niyamas, as I was exploring the Old Testament. I realized that Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, and the authors of the Bible were essentially saying the same thing. Live a righteous life, and be in relationship with God.

I had been afraid that studying yoga would threaten my Christian faith, but it was actually the opposite. After I learned about the yamas and the niyamas, I felt more connected to God on my mat, than I ever had before. I realized that it was vital to use what God gave me, if I hoped to understand my purpose in life. And I learned to focus on how the practice felt, more than how it looked, which made me appreciate yoga so much more.

For those who are new to yoga, it’s ok if you want to start to learn the practice through asana, but the practice will come with more ease, if you spend time considering the yamas and the niyamas before you meet your mat each day. I will talk more about each of the yamas and niymas in future posts, as well as many other of aspects of yoga (there’s so much to share!). Follow this blog, if you have not already, and like My Crazy Healthy Life on Facebook, for yoga and wellness insights and tips.

Thank you for sharing this journey with me!

Namaste,

Amber

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Blog, Interrupted

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Last month, when I wrote the original post about learning to cook without recipes, I thought I’d have time to get all three articles written before we left on vacation. Life had other plans, however, and I haven’t had a chance to finish what I started. I keep thinking I should be writing, but my heart has led me to just live, instead of push so hard, as our summer draws to a close.

I promise I will finish the cooking series soon. But, in the meantime, I wanted to share a few cool things that have happened since I wrote the last post.

My New “Job”

The big thing going on for me right now is that I am chairing the Wellness Committee for our daughters’ school this year. It’s not really a job, but it feels like one. It’s keeping me super busy.

I am creating a new educational program that will empower parent volunteers to teach their children’s classes about the fundamentals of wellness. We will have a dedicated “Wellness Ambassador” for every classroom (i.e. parent volunteer), who will be responsible for leading short, but powerful, classroom lessons about what it means to be healthy. The time commitment for volunteers is less than ten ho
urs for the whole year. The idea is to ask for a small commitment from a lot of parents, and create an army of mentors, to show our students that our community values good health.

School starts tomorrow, so I have been feeling a bit crunched to get the lessons completed, and recruit volunteers. I’m also a little nervous about how it will be received. So far, the feedback has been good, and I have a dozen parent volunteers signed up, but I still need another 40. It’s a good problem to have, though, because it gives me a reason to talk about health and wellness within our community.

Vacation

Another thing that has kept me busy the past few weeks is trying to just BE with my family before summer draws to a close. We took one last vacation to our new favorite getaway, Vero Beach, FL, last week. It was a much needed break from our routine, that allowed us to stop doing, and just play as a family. We visited with friends who live in the area, built sandcastles, played frisbee, and took day trips to some of the parks in the area. I tried to see it all through our girls’ eyes, and play with them, rather than observing.

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And, as I always do when we travel to beautiful places, I took some new yoga pictures.

Yoga Pictures

I started taking yoga pictures while on vacation two years ago, when we were in Moab, UT. Taking pictures of poses might seem unyogic, because poses really aren’t the point (uniting the mind, body and spirit is the point, for those who are new to yoga), but the truth is that they have helped me enhance my practice.

At the time of the first photos, I needed them for my business, and Moab seemed like the prefect place to take them. I was right…the pictures helped me build credibility and attract new clients. Surprisingly, though, the photos also became a way of benchmarking my practice.

For the first time, I could see how far I had come in my yoga practice, as well as how far I had to go. Looking at the photos afterward helped me identify imbalances and weakness in my body, which is important because physical imbalance often correlates with emotional and spiritual imbalance. This is why we often feel better mentally after asana practice.

By focusing on improving my poses, other parts of my practice improved as well. I was able to breathe deeper and meditate longer, as I got stronger and more flexible.

Here are some photos to illustrate my point. This photo was taken in Moab in September 2011. After I saw it, I started working on lifting my leg higher in the backbend.

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And this photo was taken in March 2012. It’s easy to see that the pose is much more open than before.
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Six months later, in July 2012, I was able to go even deeper into the backbend, drop to my elbows, and lift my leg much further.

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See what I mean? This is why I always try to take yoga pictures whenever we travel. It doesn’t take very long, the pictures remind me of how it felt to be on vacation, and they inspire me to be more deliberate and organized in my yoga practice. I also think it’s good to have these keepsakes for my children–I hope it will inspire them to work hard to stay healthy throughout their life.

I’m telling you this because, while we were on vacation, my husband got some great shots of poses I have been working on. Here’s my favorite. The rest are on the Facebook page for My Crazy Healthy Life–check them out when you get a minute!

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Keeping The Faith

The last thing I wanted to share with you is about the importance of faith in this crazy healthy life. For me, sustainable wellness is created through a combination of nutrition, exercise, and faith. I’ve tried getting healthy with just nutrition and exercise, many times, and it never lasted very long. It was only when I started believing that anything was possible, trusting my struggles, and seeking God in my yoga practice, that it all finally clicked.

One of the many ways my family cultivates our faith is through service to the homeless. We believe that by serving others, we draw closer to God. Our favorite way to serve Him is to set aside an afternoon to buy food, make sack lunches, and deliver them to a park downtown, where Atlanta’s homeless congregate during the day.

Watching our healthy, blessed children share treats with our homeless neighbors always humbles me, and reminds me that, in God’s eyes, we are all equal. That how He sees us is more important than how the rest of the world sees us.

I know it’s true, because every time we feed the homeless, God shows up in big ways. Like the time I decided to take the girls down to the park by myself. I was afraid of managing food delivery and my three young girls without hubby’s help, but I decided to trust the struggle and do it anyway. I was glad I did. Because, as we drove away from the park, we saw this man, carrying an enormous cross up a hill. next to a ONE WAY sign, pointing up hill. A picture worth a thousand words.

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I don’t know about you, but I had never actually seen a man carrying a cross up a city street until that day. Watching him struggle put so much into perspective.

God showed up again, this past Sunday, when we took ice cream and waters to that same park downtown. When we arrived, everyone lined up, and our girlies handed out the ice cream and waters. We served approximately 50 people (2 ice cream treats each and a bottle of water), and it cost less than $50.

As we were handing out the last of the ice cream, we met a man named Jerald, who had the name “Amber” tatooed on his his arm. I’ve never seen my name tatooed on someone before–it caught me by surprise! Jerald said God must have sent me, because his beloved daughter’s name is Amber as well. He told us he is proud of her, because she is in college in Savannah, and she’s making something of herself. He also shared his good news–he just got a job as a cook at Georgia Tech, and is slowly getting back on his feet.

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Johann (pictured below on the right) quoted scripture beautifully, and his love of God was infectious. He was joyful to the core. Our girls told him that they had read Jeremiah that morning during home church (another family tradition, when we can’t get out the door on Sunday mornings), and wouldn’t you know it–Jerald and Johann had also studied Jeremiah that morning! My girls thought that was really cool, and have prayed for Jerald and Johann each night since we left them.

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What’s Next

This feels more like a journal entry, than one of my blog posts, but I felt called to explain my absence, and share these thoughts with you today. I think the point is that it’s good and right to make plans, but it’s also important to loosen the reigns sometimes. Amazing things happen when we allow ourselves to just live.

Today marks a new chapter for our family, as all three of our girls are in school for a full day for the first time. I think it is also the beginning of something big for me, in this crazy healthy life. I’m not sure exactly what it will look like yet, but I am grateful that I can share the journey with you here. Thank you for reading, and look for more about cooking without recipes soon!

Blessings,

Amber

Keep Calm and Merry On

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December 24th used to be the most stressful day of the year. I would run around, trying to make sure that everything was just right for friends and family. I spent countless hours decorating the house, wrapping gifts, and cooking unhealthy food. Not because I wanted to, but because it was the “tradition”. I was so attached to what I thought others expected at Christmas, that I forgot to enjoy it myself.

Now I know better. Yoga has taught me to approach the holidays with purpose, and non-attachment. It’s one of the most valuable lessons in life (and the theme of this blog!): if we want to live well, we have to let go.

It makes me think that Jesus must have been a yogi, too. And I wonder…does it makes him sad, to watch me run around with my hair on fire, on his birthday?

So I ask myself, WWJD at Christmas? I am pretty sure he would honor his body with yoga, and mediation. He would remind his family how much he loves them, and teach them that today is about celebrating grace, lovingkindness, and peace on earth. And then I think he would prepare a crazy healthy meal for his family.

I’m going to try to do all of these things today, in my own less-than-perfect way. As soon as I return from one last trip to Target for stocking stuffers.

After that final mad dash through the store, I will return home, hug my kids, wrap the stocking stuffers, and prepare a healthy meal for my family. While everything is in the oven, I will get on my yoga mat, and give myself a yoga break. And that will make it a lot easier to be merry the rest of the day.

I think you deserve a break today as well, and this 10 minute yoga practice with Steve Ross is a great place to start. Do a little yoga, breathe deeply, be present, and remember that today, more than ever, we are supposed to keep calm and merry on.

Namaste,

Amber

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The Aim of Life

I don’t even know where to begin, to process the shootings in Connecticut today. I’ve deliberately not turned on the TV or checked Facebook since I first heard the news, because it’s just too painful. Instead, I have tried to just be with my three young daughters. To drink them in, and remember why they are here in the first place. They are here because I desperately wanted to be a mother. I wanted the opportunity to teach them how to live vibrantly, and celebrate their milestones along the way.

But it’s hard to focus on their need to play Littlest Pet Shop, when the news is of innocent children brutally murdered, and parents who are grieving tonight. Even so, playing with my kids is exactly what I should do right now.

I can’t change what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary, but I can make sure my children feel loved today. I can look them in the eye…and play hide and seek…and hug them for a really long time. Stay in the moment, Amber. Make the healthy choice. Be aware, see your children for who they are, and make sure they know that they are seen. Because, as Henry Miller once said (and I often remind myself): “The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.”

What happened in Connecticut today is the worst kind of heartbreak. It’s also a reminder that we must LIVE our lives. What’s getting in the way of living your life? Set it aside now, and get down to the business of living.

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