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Knowing Surrender: A Practice

It’s no secret I haven’t been writing this year. Since getting my first diary in 1989, I’ve not written this little.

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It’s humbling to watch someone you love decline and them be equally aware of how hard it is to believe what’s happening. What’s happening? Shaky hands, forgetting who is around and what’s physically possible like standing, dressing yourself, body not communicating with spirit and the dance of humility and grace. My step-mama will stop mid-task and look up at me to say, “isn’t this weird?”

Navigating a wheel chair, learning when to step back, being patient and restraining yourself from “helping” was what this week looked like.

After midnight is when she decides to assert her independence the most and takes inventory of what’s in the fridge and freezer. She can’t be alone because she may fall in her attempts to stand. She knows it’s hard to not step in and thanks me for it. I let her do her thing for anywhere close to an hour so my dad can rest and then put her to bed which takes another 30 minutes or so. Everything takes longer than you plan. Taking a shower is a luxury for everyone, especially a long hot one. It’s like having a newborn, a toddler, a fire to put out and all changing minute to minute.

Having kept things on hold after my mom was given less than a year to live, when we reached 16 months I was given a hard push to get back to living my life.

I evaluated my goals with work, my academic goals for my own personal means and more than anything found myself declining invites to attend births, dinners, parties, concerts and traveling. I just didn’t know what to plan for and what my family needed. Would she survive? Would my dad need me to move in for awhile?

This month, we were told she may have only three weeks to live and it will be three weeks this Tuesday.
Trying to decide how much time to take off of work now to be with her or to help with the funeral is the strangest conversation in my head. It’s just unclear what the timeline is.

When expecting parents are given a due date, the birth team knows to be available three weeks before and after. You’re on call, you’re fully engaged and willing to throw all plans out the window for what’s best each moment, then you’re changing diapers, you’re up all hours and again, you throw out all plans for what’s pressing, for a nap or taking a phone call to the advice nurse. It’s the same coming into this world as it is going out it seems.

There are random moments of quiet to reflect, things are left half done and with the delusions it’s hard to swallow the shouts and confusion. When I catch my breath I yearn to know the difference between giving up and giving in, between letting go and surrendering.

Today my parents finally met with hospice and talk about the reality of what’s going on after a week of no sleep and really bad days.

It’s not lost on me that do this with and for a lawyer who used to run a home health care business is surreal.

Luckily, today was a good day for my stepmom but that meant that there was more of a fight to not give up and ask for help.
Note to self from Self: Preparing is not giving up. Acknowledging the decline is not being negative, it’s being wisely proactive.

Can you imagine being 47 years old and having little to no motor function after being an Iron Man athlete? My mom is stubborn, never gives up and always presents a solution if addressing a problem. The only towel she throws is a terrible one when the Steelers win points.

What does it look like to be positive, believe anything is possible with a good attitude when you have an inoperable brain tumor and things are getting bleak?


With little sleep, little time and lots of love, I can say this- the difference between giving up and letting go is patience, kindness and compassion for yourself and those around you.

There can be peace or fear in realizing that we don’t have control ultimately, and what we do have control over (being able to get up, speech, behavior, our bodily functions, thoughts, choices, beliefs) is subject to change. Babies don’t see poop or having to be carried as bad, they don’t judge these things nor themselves. Pride and grace are what we fight for as we leave our body and the awkward slow dance of requesting assistance is a massive part of the process.

Being a participant in what’s happening rather than fighting it is key. Fighting for yourself can look like fighting the world and reality but giving your best has a different quality, surrender is the ingredient.
I believe there is no blanketed clause or cure-all approach. Every person, situation and moment is unique which makes it even more complex to know what’s right.

What worked this afternoon in the kitchen didn’t work at 3am on the bathroom floor last night. Surrendering to each moment keeps me sane, knowing all things must pass and knowing I’m supported to do what’s right, to be here now is The Serenity Prayer in action.

Be Here NOW is not simply the title of a book or something to put on a t-shirt but a practice.

What I love about right now is that in Liza’s delusions she hasn’t lost her humor. What I love about right now is that when you need to cry you can be left alone. What I love about right now is if they need me, I’m here. What I love about right now is practicing being here right now and that everything I’ve learned as a doula, a yogi, a friend, a business woman, a student, a teacher, a daughter is serving me today, tonight and tomorrow.

In honor of my stepmom’s favorite album of all time…

Makeover For Your Body, Mind & Spirit

Warning: Practicing Yoga Regularly May Leave You Feeling Damn Good Inside and Out!

Something strange has happened… I’ve noticed a glow (no I’m not radioactive and I’m certainly not pregnant) but since I’ve been practicing yoga regularly again my skin has become so happy (go-lucky me!).

Skin is the third kidney, it’s the organ we see and interact with on a surface level and when our system is overloaded with no place to release it shows in our complexion, the areas under our eyes and with not-so-fun break outs. Heating our system with exercise moves excess toxins and blocks. I’ve been dripping in class onto my mat lately and I’ll tell ya, when I’m first starting I’m not wanting to be there but by the end of the hour I’m smiling ear to ear (and so is my skin). Asanas (yoga postures) are also prescriptions for particular emotional, mental, physical ick that are proven to help (especially over time and when done consistently).

Check out this quick and to-the-point article Yoga for Good Glowing Skin originally posted on The Times of India:

It costs but a fraction of what your imported cosmetic cream might does but requires double the hard work.

The secret behind glowing, healthy skin, it seems was written hundreds of years ago in Yogic literature. Yoga is usually associated with fitness and flexibility but it also adds that glint to your face that many cosmetic procedures can’t. Inverted postures, pranayama and sun salutations can give you the much-needed makeover, provided you practice them regularly.

According to the head of artistic yoga, Bharat Thakur’s Yoga, Uma Gautam, all inverted postures like the halasana or the plough posture, the sarvangasana, the head stand or sirshasana, the paschimottamasana help the blood to flow to the brain, and there is good blood circulation around the eyes and cheeks. “These asanas clear the skin and makes it look healthy. Between seven to 10 days of practicing these asanas you can see the difference clearly.

Pranayama (read: breathing) is also great for good skin. You can do anywhere between 20 to 100 Kapalbhatis and Bhastrikas and see the change yourself. In the yogic scriptures, there is a mention of these yogic postures to not just develop a healthy lifestyle but also see the change in your skin.” Click here to go to original post.

Pretty good stuff huh?

I’ll tell you one more hot tip, listen up LADIES…

Yoga helps immensely in the red tent arena.  I for one I’m very pleasantly surprised by the reduction of swelling, water retention, PMS, cramps and the overall flow is shorter.  If you practice the week or two before your period, your body will thank you (and so will everyone else around you).

Warrior II

Here are some of my favorite ways to yoga it up:

  • Warrior Series Sequence with vinyasas (sun salutations) in between
  • Downward dog with alternating leg kicks and curls
  • Dolphin Plank series (activates your core big time)

A simple guide brought to you by our friends at Yoga Journal

Get step-by-step instructions (with pictures) for poses that fit YOUR needs by going to  http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/sequence_builder

At the new studio I’m practicing at, our teacher incorporates dancing too!  If you live in LA definitely check out Bhakti Yoga Shahla (big ups for Govindas’ all levels class), Power Yoga in Santa Monica with Vytas and Your Neighborhood Studio which has oodles of dance and other fun movement options (they’re motto is When You Don’t Know What Do- Dance!).

P.S. I know lots of teachers and great studios all over the world, so if you don’t know where to go let me know or if you have suggestions, post below!  Sharing is caring (and mad sexy).

Eat, Pray, Breathe…

Photo Courtesy of Amber Buck

Ashram exploration has become a hot topic since Elizabeth Gilbert‘s “Eat Pray Love” and more curious kittens are rolling up, yoga mat in hand then ever before.

There’s something romantic about the idea of turning to prayer, turning within and finding a deeper truth in the face of chaos.

In fact, for sometime, I envisioned a three month adventure to India with my best girlfriends but every year seemed to pass without so much as a peep of an om to get our tickets.

So when my mom called to share with me that she’d like to treat me to a stay at an ashram, I was fairly surprised.

“Where is it?”

“Grass Valley, just outside of Sacramento. I was thinking you could go for your birthday with your friends, it’s not exactly a vacation but it’d be something really incredible to share- don’t you think?”

Hmmm, well the gal pals and I were already headed to Mexico for my birthday but I just so happened to have a plane ticket to San Francisco the week of the next yoga retreat at the ashram.  With a groupon codein hand (I know, a groupon for an ashram?!?!?), I was en route to go get my prayer and yoga on.

The week leading up to my stay, I visited with family and friends, some of whom I’d not seen in anywhere from a year to three.  It was a strange time, I was saddened by the loss of our family pet, Max, who’d died unexpectedly shortly before my arrival.

R.I.P. little buddy

I had this homesick feeling, a deep sadness like something was about to change dramatically.  To make matters more heavy, strange and sad- there were three deaths of neighbors or friends of family while I was “home”.  I was followed by a hearse for the better part of an hour on the freeway and I had this sense of urgency, this keen awareness to really soak up the time I had with my loved ones.

So I did.  It was bittersweet and when I drove east towards the ashram I felt moved to make one last stop.  A sage in my life, someone who mentored me in my youth, a surrogate mother if you will, had recently been diagnosed with cancer.  She was beginning chemotherapy the week I began my stay at the ashram and she was on the way.  As I sat with her, my pictures framed alongside other family members I saw the girl I’d once been and how large of a gap there was between her and the woman I am now.  How could I even begin to express in an hour where I was, who I was, what I was doing in my life.  My words, my sentences seemed to be echoing from someone else’s mouth.

Finally, I just asked to sit with her on the couch.  She smelled the same, she looked the same, she laughed the same.  Was I so different?  Feisty as ever, I knew she knew she was going to be okay- it wasn’t her time to go yet but I felt regret.  I didn’t know when I’d see her again and I hid my tears.

With the day slipping away, I departed with kisses and hugs.  I had a few hours until sunset and dinner at the Yoga Farm.

Hot, dusty, moo-cow landscaped gravel roads wound around and around until I arrived at a gateway entering the ashram.

I was half-expecting everyone there to be robed, wearing japa (prayer beads) or at the very least one with the universe, i.e. mega blissful.


Upon arrival the staff was agitated, stressed and discombobulated.  Many of the yogis on site have remained to work through any number of issues to do work-study and having people skills isn’t a requirement.  In fact, their karma yoga is often to do the very thing they least enjoy and with a smile on their face.  Well, the “receptionist” was not digging his new role and shared he had just started the position this week.  And so it went, a bit of a free-for-all, “I’m not sure why but that’s how it is” mantra repeated over and over again.

I drove my things up to my humble little cabin for four, found that a bottom bunk remained and placed my things on it before heading back down for dinner.

The food was incredible, organic, ayurvedic, garden fresh and made with love.  WIth only two serving times a day, it was a challenge to refrain from piling heaps of the delicious yum on my plate.

Karma yoga, sacred service.  I was assigned kitchen duty under a young man  observing silence (I didn’t know, I just thought he was quiet).  No one else  was showing up to help but the plates, pans, pots and silverware  were. Cleaning up a meal made for forty is no joke.  90 minutes every day in the  hot sun baked kitchen wasn’t my first choice but it gave me peace of mind to  just focus on a task, and once I was given gloves- I was over the moon.

I had no time to think, I had no time to reflect on the meaning of life, there  was none.

We got up every morning to the sound of bells and the voice of a chosen staff  member (who wasn’t a morning person but did his best) calling out “Om Namah Shivaya 5:30″.  A quick run to the bathroom, shared by 12 to brush teeth and wash our faces and then down the hill I plunked towards the meditation hall.  Thirty minutes of silent, still meditation where I found my mind racing, my legs going numb and mosquitoes having a field day with my restful, warm limbs.  At least 30 minutes of kirtan (prayer chanting in sanskirt to the gods/archetypes of the soul), followed by 30 minutes (but often an hour) of satsanga, wisdom keeping company- where the swami would lecture on yoga philosophy.

My favorite pieces of this yoga pie were certainly kirtan and satsanga.  The concept was to raise our awareness, raise our vibration, elevate our consciousness with inspiring and enlightening thoughts as well as sounds.  Then yoga instruction would begin after a five minute break, two hours of only 12 asanas plus a whole lot of breathing.  In my yoga teacher’s training, we were pushed to the limit of what we thought possible with intensive drills for time.  Here, the teaching was relax yourself as much as possible to create trust and peace in your approach.  Night and day.  We would lie in savasana (corpse pose) for 5-10 minutes between each pose and have a final 20-30 minutes savasana to close the practice.

For many, yoga is about sweating and being in shape but here we embodied yoga- in everything we did, which was the whole point of Swami Sivananda’s teaching.  We cannot live peacefully without knowing peace within little by little in all that we do.

“Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate, Realize.” – Swami Sivananda

And so it went…

Wake up, brush teeth, pee, meditate, kirtan, satsang, yoga class, brunch, karma yoga time, an hour free time (often shower time), open yoga for a two hour class outside on the deck, dinner, meditation, kirtan, satsang, brush your teeth and lights out.

The restfulness I had in having routine was profound.  It’s like knowing where your keys are, that they have a place and when you need them, you know where to find them.   Turning off my phone, having no computer- wow, that was a whole other form of vacation.  My eyes began to focus and enjoy the grounds, the heat was intense during the day but I found it penetrating my muscles and helping immensely during yoga.

I made a great number of friends in my beginner yoga group and it was really wonderful to be in the role of student again.

A Day At The River... Photo by Evan Oliver

On the last day, we were taught head stand- the one asana I’ve been attempting for seven years (and to no avail).  I was nervous, my heart starting pumping as we brought our bodies into v-shapes and walked our feet in towards our hands.  My back straightened directly in line with my head and my feet popped up, beginning to rise.  I was in half-hand stand and growing.  My mind all of a sudden realized what had happened without its consent and I shrieked, jumping out of it.

I’d made an agreement that it was impossible and here I was having done it.  My whole body shook.  I realized that all this time it hadn’t been a control issue as much as it had been a trust issue with myself.  I didn’t trust my body to know what to do, that it would know.

Our teacher was a bit type-A, a kindergarten teacher/Catholic missionary gone yogi-super-star.  She reminded me of me in some ways and that was painful.  A recovering perfectionist, it was hard to have a conversation with her without her getting defensive and re-routing the conversation back to “thanks be to God.” I didn’t want to ask for more help at that time so I just laid down in savasana to relax myself and come out of the mini-hyperventilation that had started.

For the rest of the class, my body jumped from fight to flight mode- it didn’t know what to do with itself.  I couldn’t hold any of the poses, it was bizarre.  When I finally listened and just stayed down, my heart began to pinch.  This immense grief that had been locked up started to pulse and tears streamed out of my eyes, dripping into my ears and I just stayed with it, breathing until it had passed.

Gently approaching yoga was something I hadn’t experienced in some time, the lineage I had followed before was fierce, warrior training (not unlike the military).  I felt myself soften and be reminded that tenderness, sweetness, softness is not to be mistaken as weakness.

During meditation, we were instructed to repeat a pure thought- Om – and pick one of two places to focus that attention in our bodies while silent.  We were instructed to choose either the point between the brows (the third eye) or the heart center.  Day one, I felt more resonance with my heart but I wanted to focus on what I considered to be more powerful- the brow, the mind, the intuition/intellect. Gee, I wonder why my mind was so active.  Ha!

So finally, on the last day I decided to own where my center was – my heart and it resounded with a breaking, a cracking, a trusting.

I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to stay for a month and just rest in these newfound awarenesses.  The permission slip to be present, lack distraction and communication with the outside world was a mighty temptation.  In the end, I knew it was time for me to go for now and that I would take my practices with me.

On my drive back into “civilization” I got lost and nearly wound up back at the ashram.  And then I got stuck in grid-lock traffic just outside of my mentor’s town.  I pulled off the highway and found a Whole Foods (and went a bit crazy with all the food).  I picked the most perfect, little yellow happy flowers in a pot that looked like they could withstand the 100+ degree heat and brought them to my mentor’s door.

I sat writing her everything I’d wanted to say but didn’t trust I knew how.  I wrote one of the kirtan chants that had meant so much to me and seemed utterly appropriate for her healing.  As I turned away from her doorstep, I smiled.  She already knew everything I’d wanted to say, she knew everything that she would soon read.  I was grateful for her presence in my life, for her wisdom and love.  I felt peace.

I’ve meditated every day since, maybe not for as long or as restfully but little by little.

My time at the ashram wasn’t so much eat, pray, love as it was breathe, trust and squish…  ;-)

Ella and Squish after Puja

by popular demand… this story is now published on Elephant Journal, too!

Check it out:  http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/08/eat-pray-breathe/ and like it, share it, re-post it if you enjoy it!