New Year’s Lessons from the Warrior Pose

I’ve practiced yoga for years on and off.  While I appreciated the benefits of yoga, it was never something that I could sustain on a consistent basis.  I actually used to give major side eye to folks who practiced hot yoga and now I swear by it.  But, in the last three years, I’ve become much more committed to my practice, and the main reason for that is my reunion with the Warrior pose.

Three years ago, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to practice yoga more regularly, and I started the new year by attending a group class taught at my local YMCA.  I was a bit rusty when it came to both the asana (physical) and pranayama (breathing) aspects of the class.  Let’s keep it real–I was a whole lot rusty.  But, when we began a Warrior series, it clicked for me why I needed this practice in my life.  The instructor directed us into the Warrior I pose and talked us through setting up the proper alignment and maintaining balance.  Once positioned, I felt strong and imagined I was in battle.  And, at the time in my life, I was in a kind of battle–a battle for my physical and emotional health and well being.

warrior pose
My sistafriends in the Warrior II pose at our yoga retreat at Kripalu.

Then, she instructed us to move into the Warrior II pose.  In this pose, one arm and hand reaches toward the front and your gaze is toward your hand.  You keep your gaze to the front, toward your future.  The other arm is stretched out toward the back.  The back arm is facing your past.  The back hand faces down, symbolizing letting go of the past.  This was the meditation that the instructor provided as she guided us through the positions.  In that moment, I needed to hear that, and I needed to physically and emotionally let go of some things.  More importantly, I needed to forgive myself of past wrongs and past hurts.

I still go to this same class, same instructor every week.  I look forward to the Warrior series because it is an opportunity for me to release and let go time and time again.  I tell people that yoga is my church (that’s where you’ll find me just about every Sunday morning at 8:30AM), and for me, the Warrior series represents an act of self-forgiveness.

So, as we begin a new year, I offer a few lessons that I’ve learned from the Warrior pose and that I’ll continue to embrace as I look toward the future.

1) You wouldn’t be the Warrior you are today had you not been through that battlefield.  It has been easy for me to look back on my past with shame, resentment, and anger.  Why did I do that?  What was I thinking?  I wish I had known better or taken a different path.  But, then, that wouldn’t be my life, and I wouldn’t be the person that I am today.  I am wiser because of all of my bumps and bruises and better equipped to deal with what will come.  So, instead of being angry and resentful, I’ve learned to accept and, dare I say it, appreciate my past because, look, I’m still here.  Through the battle scars, I’m still here.

2) Forgiveness begins with you.  I’ve learned that I have no control over others’ emotions or actions.  For years, my ability to forgive myself was directly tied to whether others forgave me.  I was seeking outward approval and validation.  Yes, when you hurt someone, you should acknowledge it, ask for their forgiveness, and be purposeful in not hurting them again.  But, you have no control over their desire or willingness to forgive you or to let go of the hurt.  That is their choice.  But, you do have control over whether or not you forgive yourself.  Each time I stand in Warrior II, I forgive myself and let it go.  I choose to forgive and love myself, mistakes, flaws, and all.

3) As you look to the future, set your intentions.  It is important to acknowledge the past so that you don’t repeat the same mistakes.  I don’t want to let go of stuff just to have it resurface next month.  I’m letting it go, and I’m saying, never again.  Let me be clear–an intention is not just about what you’re not going to do.  It is about what you ARE going to do.  You are affirming new actions, new beginnings.  And, the new year is a time to set intentions for new beginnings and to unleash the inner Warrior.

Home Alone: The Vegan Edition

foodWhen folks learn that I eat a vegan diet, one of the first questions they ask is, “Is your whole family vegan?”  And, the short answer is, No.  I wish I could say that they are vegan by association because I cook most of our meals and I do most of the grocery shopping.   But, no, instead I usually end up cooking two meals–one for me and one for them.  I am not only alone because of my vegan diet, though.  I’ve eliminated junk food, soda, and most processed foods from my diet, but that is not the case for my husband and 12 year old son.  My husband wants to eat healthier, but on many occasions, he has his stash of Reese’s peanut butter cups, Twizzlers, and orange cream soda.  My son treats dessert like it’s its own food group in the food pyramid.  Yes, I’d like for both of them to eat healthier, and I work hard to provide nutritious options in our house.  I work hard to meet all of our needs and wants (because junk food is not a need!).  I maintain a vegan diet, but I don’t want to impose my decision on them.  So that I don’t pull my hair out in the process, here are a few ways that I’ve learned to deal with being the sole vegan in a meat-eating household.  These are also tips for encouraging more healthy eating among all members of the family.

1) Eat more fruits and vegetables.  This is something that we all need to do in my house.  So, whenever and wherever I can, I include fresh fruits and vegetables in our diet.  In theory, I try to have 2-3 servings of vegetables and fruits at every meal.  That’s in theory, but I’m working toward that.  During the summer months, we visit local farmers markets weekly to stock up on what’s in season.  Next year, I plan to join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) where each week we’ll get a box full of vegetables and fruits from a local farm.

2) Make smoothies.  For some reason, while my husband won’t eat fruits raw, he loves smoothies.  This is one way that we’ve been able to introduce more fruit (and sometimes veggies) into our diets.  Our favorite blend:  frozen strawberries and blueberries, a banana, and coconut milk.  For added protein and nutrients, I may add a spoonful of almond butter and a handful of spinach.  We drink smoothies daily.

3) Replace butter with other oils.  Becoming vegan, this was a hard one for me.  I love soul food.  And, I’d grown to believe that you just can’t replace butter in most soul food recipes.  It won’t taste the same.  For example, how can you make sweet potato pie without using butter?  How can you make cornbread without using butter?  I can go on and on.  I used to cook just about everything with butter.  I changed my mind after I read Bryant Terry’s Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine.  I’ve since learned to enjoy cooking and eating foods made with organic coconut oil.  I also use other oils like olive and canola oil.

4) Learn how to make family favorites vegan style.  I try to cook vegan meals that anybody will love.  I turn to recipes from Bryant Terry’s Vegan Soul Kitchen and Moosewood Restaurant for new ideas.  My husband loves my tofu scrambles and tears up my black bean, spinach, and rice quesadillas.  And, I make a mean vegan apple pie that satisfies my son’s expectations.

Our kitchen is a work-in-progress.  I still cook meals with meat and animal products on a regular basis.  Thanksgiving was rough–I cooked the turkey.  It is difficult to cook meals that I cannot taste.  My husband has a few signature dishes that he prepares each week, like his turkey burgers and pancakes with sausage.  He’s also learning to cook more.  And, we have pizza night at least once a week–there’s is a cheese pizza with turkey pepperoni and mine is vegan crust with tomatoes, spinach, and mushrooms.  It takes time to figure things out as a family with diverse dietary needs (and wants), but we’re doing it day by day.  Right now, I have to go get the turkey ricotta lasagna out of the oven.

Searching for the Girl in Me

dollsChristmas morning, as I opened my gifts from Santa, I started to feel like Santa (aka my husband) was trying to tell me something.  First, I unwrapped a beautiful Kente-clothed, Black doll named Kenya.  She’s part of the Disney collection “It’s A Small World,” and when you press her tummy, she sings the Disney tune first in English (“It’s a small world afterall, it’s a small world afterall…”) and then in Swahili.  Santa left a note explaining that this gift was to get me excited about my upcoming travel to Kenya and also to remind me of how much I love the “It’s A Small World” boat ride each time I visit the Disney Theme Parks.

The next gift I unwrapped was the Rue action figure doll from The Hunger Games.  When I first read The Hunger Games (no spoilers for those who haven’t read the series.  But, if you haven’t, read it!), I instantly related to the character Rue, a 12-year old girl from district 11 selected to participate in the 74th Hunger Games.  From the author’s description of district 11 and of Rue, I pictured her to be a little brown-skinned, naturally curly haired Black girl.  And, apparently, when I saw the first film, so did a lot of other people.  RueOkYet, there was a social media frenzy about people’s upset and disappointment that the role of Rue was acted by a young Black actress, Amanda Stenberg (read more).  For me, this role was cast perfectly–Ms. Stenberg embodied everything I imagined Rue to be.  But, also, how wonderful for young Black girls and for the little Black girl in me to read about and see representations of ourselves even in an imagined world.  Now, thanks to Santa, I had my own action figure of her.

The last gift I unwrapped was a babydoll of the Disney princess Tiana of The Princess and the Frog.  Princess Tiana was Disney’s attempt at giving us a Black princess (sorry, but Nala from The Lion King does not count *side eye*).   While the storyline was still quite problematic (princess ends up with the coveted prince), there’s still some power in representation.  As a child, I just wanted dolls and action figures that looked like me.  But now, on this Christmas morning, I was becoming a little suspect–what was Santa trying to say?  I’m almost 40 years old.  I don’t play with dolls…anymore.  And, now I’m staring at 2 dolls and a female action figure–what am I supposed to do with these?

Along with these gifts came a note from Santa that read,

“From the many conversations we have about our childhood holidays, I’ve always wanted to give something to the little girl I would one day marry.  As you continue to help and teach Black girls and boys, here’s to seeing the innocence in us all, especially the innocence I’ve learned to appreciate in you.”

These gifts were a perfect reminder of the importance of honoring the innocence and youthfulness that is still within me.  In this world, it ain’t as easy for little Black girls to claim this innocence.  We have to grow up too fast, too soon.  We receive constant messages that diminish the mere plausibility of our youth, of our innocence.  Even in the imagination, the young, beautiful Rue cannot be a Black girl.  Even in the imagination, the princess who kisses the frog to discover her prince cannot be Black.  This holiday season, I was reminded that we have to reclaim Black girlhood, celebrate it and protect it.  This reclamation starts with me.

mookieSo, in this new year, I am searching for the little Black girl who still lives within me.  The girl who plays with dolls, jumps double dutch, skips hopskotch, races matchbox cars, eats mud pies, and collects worms.  This is a reminder for me, too, as I live my yoga on and off the mat that it is OK to imagine, to play, and to be free flowing.  If I want to sing and dance in public, I can.  If I want to race my son to the car, I can.  If I want to spend an afternoon watching old cartoons, I can.  If I want to play make believe with my new dolls, I can.  And, I should because Santa said so (and my Santa is a Black man).

Just Breathe and Run

“You are not going to die.  Just breathe.  Breathe!”  I laugh now remembering the nurse who yelled this at me while I was hyperventilating in her emergency triage room.  I was in my first semester as a doctoral student, and at the end of the semester, I found myself at the hospital suffering from an anxiety attack.  I had several final papers to write, I was juggling being the mother of a 3 year old, and I was simply overwhelmed.  I had a lot on my plate, and I was not confident about how I would accomplish it all.  In that moment, my body clamped shut, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe.  I was hyperventilating, and I was scared to death.  I was freaking out.  To calm my nerves (and to threaten some sense into me), the nurse yelled at me to “Breathe!!”  And, into the brown paper bag she handed me, I did just that.  I paused, and I paid attention to my breath.  I listened to my breath and slowed down.  I just breathed.

lopIn yoga, the focus on breathing is called pranayama.  B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of Iyengar yoga, writes about the stages of breathing and the importance of practicing breathing techniques in yoga.  You begin with the breath, you flow with the breath, you end with the breath.  Anytime I want to sustain or go deeper in a yoga pose, I focus on my breath.  If I’m going through a particularly stressful time in my life, I carve out space to focus on my breath.  The practice of pranayama has helped me to work through some serious health issues.  Breath is life.  By focusing on and honoring my breath, I was honoring my body and my health.  Without breath, there is no life.

So, everything begins with the breath.  And, as I’ve learned to live my yoga off the mat, I’ve learned to apply this understanding and practice in other areas of my life, including when I run.  I ran track in high school (years ago).  But, in my adult life, I had concluded that I am not a runner.  I don’t run.  I can walk for miles.  But, running–not for me.  Well, this past summer, a good friend asked me to run a 5K with her for her birthday.  We signed up for one of those Color Vibe races that are all the rage.  I said I would do the 5K, but I planned on walking.  Actually, I committed to just walking.

But, my friends decided to begin training for the 5K.  The competitive spirit in me could not be upstaged, so I too decided to try training for the race.  My first time going out for a run was tough.  I could barely run a quarter of a mile, and I was completely out of breath.  I went out a few more times–same result.  I ran for a few minutes each time and quickly resumed to walking and trying to catch my breath.  Then, it occurred to me that perhaps part of my problem was that I was not focusing on my breathing.  Like in my yoga practice, everything begins with the breath.  When I’ve found myself challenged in my yoga practice, I return to my breath.  When I found myself challenged by running, I returned to my breath.

I ran my first 5K this summer in a little over 30 minutes.  And, I ran the entire 3.2 miles.   The woman who swore she did not run now runs regularly.  I try to go out for a run once or twice each week.  I love running.  But, more importantly, I love honoring my body and health by focusing on my breath.

I often fondly reflect back on the words from my triage nurse, “You are not going to die.  Just breathe.  Breathe!”  The act of breathing is the act of giving life.  And I’m all about getting my life.  So, in those moments when I find myself challenged or overcome with anxiety, I exhale, relax, and just breathe.

I Want A Home Practice, Really, I Do

Establishing a home yoga practice has been a challenge for me.  It is something that I want to do and need to do.  Being consistent with going to yoga classes at a yoga studio is one thing, but living your yoga every day on and off the mat is a whole other beast.  I am not quite sure why I am met with my own resistance when it comes to establishing a home practice.  I don’t really have too many excuses.  I have several places in my house where I can practice.  When I have practiced at home, I like to do so in my living room in front of the picture window where I get a lot of sunlight.  I made a special yoga music playlist with favorites from Cassandra Wilson and Sade.  But, the home practice doesn’t stick.  I may do it for a week or so, and then I’m done.  I look at my yoga mat leaning against the wall, collecting dust.  So, what is holding me back?

I have issues letting go.  With home practice, you lead the practice.  You determine what sequence you’ll follow and what poses you’ll do.  You decide when you begin and when you end.  You are in control.  Well, in control in the sense that you have to know how to let go.  You have to want to let go and find your flow, your natural rhythm.  That is difficult for me.  I find that I am working against myself when I practice at home.  I have a hard time quieting my mind and all of the distractions from the world around me.

As a yoga teacher, I know it will be important that I maintain a home practice.  It is essential.  How can I teach someone else yoga if I can’t even practice with myself?  It’s like what I say about teaching writing–you can’t teach writing if you yourself are not a writer.  All of the yoga blogs I follow have posts about starting and maintaining a home practice (see the Elephant Journal, Kripalu, and Yoga Journal for starters) and they all give the same advice.  The most challenging advice for me is to “just begin”.  Ultimately, you just have to begin.  It doesn’t matter if you practice for 7 minutes–what matters most is that you begin and begin again.

I’d also add that home practice is more about the mental and emotional and less about the physical for me.  What I mean is that I am not challenged by the physical practice.  In my case, they are the mental games that I play with myself that deter me from a consistent practice.  I am going to stop being so hard on myself because I did not practice at home today.  Each day is a new day to begin.  As the warrior pose teaches, don’t look back, just forward.  And, as my girl Erykah Badu sang, let it go, let it go, let it go, let it go…