the uphill part is really, really hard. and also worth it.

I’m not the biggest fan uphill. Even if it’s in a spectacularly gorgeous place, like Sequoia National Park, (which, thanks to my recent back country trip is my new favorite U.S. National Park) the “uphill” part of hiking isn’t my favorite.

Sequoia National Park was everything I wanted it to be: bursting to the brim with gargantuan trees and switchback hiking trails and boulder-strewn valleys and jagged horizons. I reflected on my Instagram feed about how quiet it was, noting: “There’s just something about being on trails where the only sounds are bird calls and insect conversations and rushing mountain streams. hiking boots crunch shale and the occasional breeze whistles through, but otherwise it’s just us and the trees standing proud, reverential and silent, surveying our descent into the valley below.”

And, let me tell you, the descent was steep. I know this, because I struggled with the weight of my backpack and a healthy dose of altitude sickness on the uphill part. )Of which, as previously mentioned, I’m not the biggest fan.) Mostly because of the short-of-breath-ness, and the fact that it usually looks impossible to walk to the top of the mountain pass from my vantage point, and also, it’s just plain hard work.

But, it is worth it. Because the views are insane. And there’s a power in rising to the challenge. And there’s a power in moving just one step beyond my perceived limitations. And there’s usually chocolate at the top.

One Mindfulness trick I use when I’m struggling to keep moving forward on a big uphill climb is the Counting Backwards method, courtesy of yoga teacher Erich Schiffman.

It works on a simple premise: When I’m in a place of mental discomfort, it’s nearly impossible to draw my attention inward and stay in the present moment. So my mental limitations and “freak-out thoughts” just get louder and louder and louder (and a little outlandish) and I experience a moment of anxiety. (You’ve probably experienced this sensation when you were stressed and couldn’t fall asleep at night. Ammiright?)

However, focusing on Counting Backwards anchors me in the present moment and allows me to practice pratyahara, the temporary withdrawing of the senses in Yoga Philosophy. In addition, letting the breath flow freely without the need to control it or change it helps me maintain mindful awareness. It’s a way of moving into the mindset of the “Observer” and regaining, well, a moment of perspective and sanity.

To practice Counting Backwards Meditation:

  1. Start by taking 3 Cleansing Inhales and 3 Cleansing Exhales, as big as possible.
  2. Remember that you are not going to change or control your breath, you are simply going to count it as it moves in and out of your body.
  3. Starting at 50, count backwards with each inhale and exhale until reaching the count of 1.
  4. The inhale is 50, the exhale is 49. The inhale is 48, the exhale is 47 and so on and so forth. If you lose count or become distracted, just start over at 50.
  5. When you reach 1, pause for a few moments and notice any positive changes and shifts in your body, mind and Spirit.

I use this technique often: to slow down the turning vrttis of my mind, to get me up a steep hiking trail, to help me fall asleep and to drop me into meditation mode.

Try my Free Audio Guided Meditation “Counting Backwards” 

Let me know when you use it and how it helps you. Happy Counting,

-lisa

p.s. please for the love, promote our National Parks System! Protect some of the most stunning places on Earth.

don’t feed the marmots: ahimsa

You’ve seen marmots, right? I mean, besides holding the title of cutest rodent name, they truly are the cutest. Their little noses never stop sniffing, they bounce down trails like plink-o balls and they steal smelly hiking shoes for snacks. Adorable, svelt, glamorously silver and long legged. I want to share snacks and stories and sunbathe with marmots.

But omygosh did you know you can kill a little furry creature by sharing trail snacks? Consuming human snacks (on purpose or inadvertently) disturbs the natural cycle of sustenance and wild ecology so deeply that one cheeze-it can kill a marmot.

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I was recently reminded of the power of ahimsa (non-harming) during my two week camping trip in the Canadian National Parks. These landscapes are breathtakingly momentous and magnificent. They are pristine; hundreds of miles of wild forests and mountains and waterways are preserved perfectly.

And because Parks Canada treasures their wildlife so deeply, campers are continuously reminded how damaging it is to feed furry critters. I’m an animal lover. My first instinct is to call and cajole and cuddle them… even the ones with sharp little teeth. So I had to pay careful attention to all my actions: I couldn’t and shouldn’t just do whatever I wanted, which mostly consisted of having high tea with marmots and sharing chocolate with bears. I needed to appraise my actions from the viewpoint of ahmisa first.

Ahimsa, which means compassion and non-harming, is the first of the yamas (ethical considerations of yoga, discussed in previous post) and is the cornerstone by which we build and measure all of our actions. Our marmots, our snacks and our yoga practice are all connected.

We learn ahimsa on our yoga mat when we pay attention to the intimate connection of our breath and our emotions and practice in a way that is laced with gentleness and compassion. The more we practice yoga, the more obvious it becomes: we are SO connected with other living beings. And our actions are extremely important because we are a microcosm of the macrocosm.

Deepak Chopra says it so perfectly:

“If you recognize your individuality is intimately woven into the fabric of life—that you are a strand in the web of life—you lose the ability to act in ways that are harmful to others.  Acting from this level of your soul, you are incapable of being violent because your whole being is established in peace.”

And that is how yoga changes the world. We LOSE the ability to act in harmful ways. We are INCAPABLE of violence because we are established in peace in our hearts and truly, honestly, want to choose compassion in each and every way.  Take your next breath and notice: you are sharing this breath with millons and gazillions of other sentient beings and you are one amazingly awesome strand in the web.

Go establish peace amongst yourselves and your marmot friends.

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yoga pants on a honeymoon.

Hey readers, no yoga posts or meditation challenges for you today or next Monday– I’m heading on my honeymoon!

After 1.5 years of engagement, my IronMan and I tied the knot on Saturday October 1st at a venue in the Crossroads District of Kansas City. (In the same neighborhood as our first blind date! Did you know we met each other at a yoga class!?)

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So happy to marry this incredible man and seek adventure with him every day!

I’ll still be practicing my yoga on my honeymoon, of course, and I know you will enjoy the substitute teachers covering my classes. We are heading to the Northeast during peak fall foliage for a tour of the White Mountains. It’ll be fun to explore a new corner of the country; we are staying at huts on the Appalachian Trail that are ‘hike-in only’ and then travelling to Burlington, Vermont on Lake Champlain. We are looking forward to lots of adventuring, hiking up some gnarly peaks, and hopefully some epic yoga pics!  The fun thing is that my friends at Lululemon CCP store gifted me white yoga clothes and new white baseball cap so even while I’m hiking I’ll look like a bride!

Remember, even if you aren’t planning a trip right now, you can engage in a Micro-adventure and even travel Nowhere.

While I’m gone, please enjoy my audio Guided Meditations. Try this new one: “So Hum Meditation”, which brings you closer to the unity with the sound of your breath.

Much love, I’ll catch you when I get back– as Mrs. Lisa Ash Drackert!

make no plans.

desert free

I landed at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport with virtually no prepared plans. I had a Hertz rental reservation and one night booked at a random motel in East-Jesus Nowhere which looked a little bit close to Sedona on Google Maps. I had 36 hours of complete disregard for schedules and expectation before I was due at my Yoga Medicine Training retreat. My only ‘had-to’ was to cram-study for the anatomy portion of my training; I’d been so caught up with studying, finishing up work, and teaching yoga in the weeks leading to my departure that I practically forgot to think about how I’d spend my first two days of free time once I got to Arizona. I didn’t have any plans. My plans could change at any moment.  I had no idea how to make this work. But somehow, I made it work.

Sure, some things were not-so-ideal: my phone died 5 minutes into a 2 hour hike; I had no GPS navigation for half the day so I actually had to (shocking! I know) read a map, remember directions, and show up at a restaurant without thoroughly exploring their menu prior to choosing it.  My e-reader wouldn’t connect to the hotel’s wifi to download a new book to read so I actually had to (shocking! I know) eat an entire meal in silence, savoring each bite, with nothing to read or distract me from the sun on my face and the nourishment in my salad. The only Voltage plug-in to be found in my rental car was in the trunk, so I had to drive for hours without Pandora music and bear witness in silence to the red rolling hills and desert brush playing tag with cloud shadows. My iPhone was still dead as I snuggled between the hotel pillows that evening, so I had to go to sleep without checking InstaGram to see what I’d missed during one day away from Real Life or setting an alarm for the next morning. My non-plans were clearly more nourishing to my soul than my plan-plans would have been.  

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this is me, before my phone died. wanted my IronMan and Russell Clive to know I was safe and covered in sunscreen.

I read once that an adventure without a mishap is just a vacation.  Does it go the other way around? Can a vacation with a mishap turn into an adventure?  

When did you most recently venture into the unknown, without a schedule or a plan or an expectation?  When did you most recently open yourself up to the possibility of an adventure stumbling into your day? When did you most recently vacate your plans and just allow the day to reveal itself?  What did you feel when you set down your schedule?  What did you see when you set aside your device?

What happened when you showed up with no expectations and no plans?  You may want to try this on the yoga mat.  

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Personally, I have huge admiration for students who show up to my Vinyasa and Hatha Classes.  They have no idea what to expect, (other than excellent, alignment-based and anatomically-wise sequencing, of course). They aren’t sure if I’m going to decide to teach a class focused on inversions or balance or strength; if I’m going to stop the class in the middle and tell jokes (I am one of the top 5 funniest people I know, after all); or if they will leave class emotionally raw from the deep Soul questions pose during meditation.

I am always in awe at how much trust my students have in me; I feel humbled every day when they drag themselves out bed at 5:30 am or leave work 2 minutes early in the evening to make it to class on time. They have plans, no agenda, no expectations for what they will encounter. They leave their security blanket (aka SmartPhone) at the door when they step into the practice room and open themselves up to the yearnings of their soul.

What a humbling expression of trust.

Not knowing what’s next on your agenda or what’s next in your life can be terrifying, but it can also be freeing. Sure, your phone will probably die and you might get lost, but your non-plans will probably end up being more exciting, more adventurous, and more nourishing to your Soul than your plan-plans. Summer’s almost here. I dare you to plan a micro-adventure with no plans, show up on your yoga mat with no set sequence in mind and play around with movement, and do something new and terrifying every day.

Let me know how your adventure goes, and what you notice when you allow life to reveal itself you to.

Happy Trusting,

-lisa

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sometimes, the unknown beckons

Tiny Peruvian Pilgrimage, part three: walking slowly.

Tiny Peruvian Pilgrimage, part three: walking slowly.

I’m a really slow walker.  I’m a painfully slow walker, according to my sister.  I love to dawdle, and gawk, and sigh, and look, and hum, and sing, and pray, and meander.  And maybe take a few steps forward.  Slowly.  Guess where this was not super welcome/ expected/ appreciated… on a four day trek up the Salkantay Mountain pass in the Cusco region of Peru.  Apparently, when you have more than 30 miles and 12,000+ feet of elevation gain/descent to cover in a few short days to get to Machu Picchu, you walk at a quick clip.  Even if you have short legs and are still sick to your stomach from some apricots bought in a local market the week prior.  No time for meandering.  Only to time for putting one foot in front of the other.  Again.  And Again.  And Again. 

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walking into the cloudy abyss…

The four day trek (sleeping in tents along the way!  yay!) through the Salkantay Mountain Pass in Peru was the highlight of our Peruvian adventure (see this post to figure out why I was in Peru).

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our camping sites along the trek in Peru were insanely beautiful

The trek was challenging.  My adventurous spirit was squelched by altitude sickness.  But it was remarkable.  Why?  I learned, for the first time, how to truly offer every step I take as a walking meditation.

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one step at a time, for many days and many miles

We left our backpackers hostel in Cusco at 3:45 am on a Peruvian winter morning and by lunchtime we were deep into the remote trails of the Andean cloud forest with our native guide Edson and a group of seven fellow hikers.  We did not choose the traditional-tourist ‘Incan Trail’ hike to Machu Picchu.  We yearned for a more secluded, intimate experience.  The Salkantay Trek follows a remote footpath and pilgrimage route for native Peruvians who paused to worship the glacier capped ‘Savage Mountain’ on their way to Machu Picchu.  For hundreds of years, Quechua, Incan, and other tribal Peruvians have put one foot in front of the other on this same trail.  They probably walked much faster than I did.

 

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the landscape was rugged and gorgeous

In Andean cosmology, mountains are Gods.  Their peaks are the highest point of contact with the Milky Way, which is the most sacred living space of Spirit.  Nevado Salkantay summits at 20,574 feet above sea level and the Southern Cross illuminates its highest peak at the height of the rainy season.  Rightly so, Incans believed this wild, uncivilized, unconquerable mountain governed the fertility of the region.  Had I known that the mountain pass I would stumble up (thank goodness my Ironman carried our water in his backpack) was christened ‘unconquerable,’ I would have prepared for the physical demands of the hike more seriously.  (As it was, I mostly prepared by walking our dog Russell and up and down our hilly block a few times.  Better luck next time.) But I did it.

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In Andean cosmology, mountains are Gods. Their peaks are the highest point of contact with the Milky Way, which is the most sacred living space of Spirit.

 

The weather was pristine.  The day before we arrived at the pass, trekkers were caught in a snowstorm; Salkantay hid behind dark cloud cover.  I’ve read narratives from Peru-lovers who’ve hiked Salkantay three times (masochists) and never been granted a clear view of its jagged peak.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when we turned the corner of the trail and landed ourselves in the shadow of the most sacred mountain in the region.  We were blessed.

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There was Navado Salkantay or ‘Savage Mountain’, just over the next pass.

Just a few miles earlier on the trail, our group paused to perform a native Andean ceremony.  It was the most remarkable moment of the entire journey.  It was a welcome respite, a much needed break.  After several mornings of pre-dawn wake-up calls, wearing mittens to breakfast, and eating pancakes by candlelight in the cook tent, I was a little tired.  (Actually, the wake-up calls were one of the best parts of our fully-guided trek.  At 5:00 am, we’d hear a gentle knock on the outside of our tent and a sing-song “Buenas Diaaaas” signaling that steaming mugs of coca tea would magically appear right outside our zippered door.  That’s room service.)

Still, after two grueling days of hiking at altitude (much, much faster than I would have liked, thank you very much.  It’s not that walking is difficult.  It’s that walking FAST is shockingly unnecessary), I was tired.  I was ready to give up.  I was counting steps.  I was making myself deals and setting impossibly low standards:  just make it to that next rock, just make it through the next five minutes, just make it to the next micro-break, just make it through the end of the next story this chatty Santa Cruz hiker is telling.  I was exhausted.

Finally, we stopped.  I sat down.  I sat my meditating-loving butt on a mossy boulder and refused to get back up.  My Ironman prodded me to get stand up and bundle up.  My day pack transformed into weightlessness as I layered on extra vests, gloves, hats and adorable Peruvian knitted legwarmers, struggling to keep my body temperature comfortable.  (Why I actually thought this trip would be comfortable is still baffling.)  The view was stunning.  I decided I was staying right there.  I didn’t know where ‘right there’ was.  In fact, turns out it was six hours away from camp.  I still had an entire day ahead of striding up hill and tottering downhill:  putting one foot in front of the other.

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Our guide Edson gathered our group together to teach us an ancient Andean tradition.  Even though I didn’t want to take one more step, I got up and hobbled over to the group, eager to participate.  Edson spread a small stash of coca leaves in a wind-protected crevice of a nearby boulder.  He showed us how to choose the best leaves; two leaves in the right hand and three leaves in the left hand.  He explained that we were approaching the mountain pass and it was now the time to offer our journey as a sacred pilgrimage. 

 

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it was now the time to offer our journey as a sacred pilgrimage.

It was a light bulb moment.  My job is to teach people that movement is prayer.  And here I was: treating this hike as arduous– something to be conquered and endured.  The Mountain was not be conquered, it was to be revered. The trek was not to be endured, it was to be offered.  I held the coca leaves gingerly in my mittened hands, and remembered this poem:

 “I appear in the wind, in soil, in stardust, in the sun,

I appear in mountains and desert rain

am the star

and I am the stone.”   

(Find it here: ‘Be Love Clothing’ )

These words eloquently remind humans that the Spirit of creative forces is manifested in every phenomenon, not limited by our cognition and rational mind.

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It was a light bulb moment.  I learned that experiencing the living pulse of nature, in true reverence, is learning to hear in my own racing heartbeat the rhythm of the living earth.  It means listening to the wind.  Listening to the moving water.  Listening to the hummingbirds.  Listening to the stories written by hundreds of pilgrims’ feet scribed in the mud of this footpath.

My mindset changed completely.  Moving forward was no longer a battle of will.  Walking forward was now an act of deep reverence.  Every step was an offering.  I was honoring Creation in every step.  For the next six hours, I barely spoke a word.  I was immersed in continuous meditative prayer, using this mantra with every step:

“I offer you the breath in my lungs.  I offer you the sound in my heart.  I offer you the sweetness of my Spirit… Let me be silent.  Let me be still.  So that kindness and grace may hover over me.”  (Adapted from Carolyn Myss and Andrew Harvey.   You may need this book.)

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With this mantra, I was not struggling.  Now I was on a pilgrimage, sharing this experience with the history of the Mountain and the Spirit of nature.  I found renewed energy.  I actually wanted to walk forward, to move, to breathe, to offer.  I wanted the trek to never end.  (Until I saw our campsite off in the distance.  Then I was super excited to curl up in my tent and nap before dinner.)

It was the most powerful experience, to practice true walking meditation.  I hope that every day I wake up for the rest of my life, I will remember to use this mantra:

 “I offer you the breath in my lungs. 

I offer you the sound in my heart.  I offer you the sweetness of my Spirit… Let me be silent.  Let me be still. 

So that kindness and grace may hover over me.”

What can you offer today?  Think about and let me know.  Thanks for listening.  Stay tuned for the next part of our journey: the Sacred City of Macchu Picchu!

-lisa

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We made it. Two thumbs up.

Tiny Peruvian Pilgrimage, part two: art of impermanence.

Tiny Peruvian Pilgrimage, part two:  art of impermanence.

(location: Island Amantani, Lake Titicaca, Peru)

Our first adventure site in Peru (see previous post if you are wondering why I’m in Peru) was a lake excursion to the unique islands on Lake Titicaca, which is the highest navigable lake in the world.  It is breathtaking.  (You can learn about Lake Titicaca here).

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Lake Titicaca from Island Amantani

What’s marvelous about Lake Titicaca is not only its size, but that it is where worlds collide.  The urban bustle of Puno (if you’ve ever been to a developing world city, you know that ‘bustle’ is a nice way of saying ‘chaos’) contrasts starkly with the absolute stillness of ancient agrarian farmsteads on the islands in the lake.  The lake is the birthplace of the Incan civilization according to Andean mythology the first God of the Incans was born from these waters nestled at an altitude of 12,500+ feet.  Viracocha emerged from the lake to create the sun, the stars and the first people.  Quecha-speaking descendants of these first Incan people still live on the secluded islands today and maintain the traditional ceremonies of honoring the sun at special times of the year from the top of their highest island peaks.

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legit fesitval. school was cancelled on the island for two weeks for this traditional festival

Our Lake Titicaca tour included three stops so we could learn about the cultures of three different island communities and stay in a local home on Lake Amantani.  After stepping of the rocking boat in the shimmering sunlight of mid-afternoon, we stood awkwardly on the banks of the lake while we were assigned host families with whom we would spend the night.  Our host mother was the tiniest person you’ve ever seen in your life.  Her mantle-adorned head barely reached my shoulder… and I’m not tall to begin with.  She led us, wordlessly, grinning, to her home on the side of terraced fields.

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walking up the path to Mathilde Maria’s home

Having no common language, we communicated brilliantly with smiles, shrugs and nervous laughter before settling into our guest room.  My Ironman had to duck to get in the doorway.  Classic.  Air BnB in Willy Wonka’s Shrinker-machine.

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Air BnB, Peruvian style

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note the height of the doors

A quick lunch of quinoa soup (score) and then it was up the mountain, walking the path that would deposit us at the peak of the island: the place where the Spirit of “Pachatata,” or Father Earth, resides.  On the other side of the valley rises “Pachamama,” or Mother Earth.  Modern inhabitants of the island venerate ancient Incan ruins and traditions on these barren, wind-swept peaks.  They, clearly, are used to walking up-hill at altitude: I was repeatedly lapped by grandmas carrying bundles of corn on their backs, babies in their arms, and who knows what else in the folds of their giant skirts.  I’m pretty sure you could fit a lamb in each pocket.  But the ‘45 minute leisurely walk’ up to the highest point of Amantani Island was worth it.  It was uncomfortable, but it was worth it.  Until you’ve seen a sunset at the top of the world, you haven’t seen a sunset.  

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the sun setting over Lake Titicaca, view from Pachatata, Father Earth

As the sun disappeared behind the Andes-framed expanse of water in front of us (cordially stealing all prospects of warmth and the feeling in my fingers), my Ironman and I mimicked the sacred tradition of circling the Quecha priests’ ceremonial site four times.  As I walked, unsteadily (thanks, Altitude Sickness), head bowed against the harsh wind, fingers tucked in my armpits for warmth, I noticed the worn path beneath my hiking boots and thought: all manner of feet have walked this path.  Bare feet, hooved feet, truck-tire-bottom-sandaled feet, touristy-Solomon-shoed feet, hiking-boot-clad feet.  Literally, since the beginning of (Incan) time, feet have been circumnavigating the highest point on this island, praying for blessings.

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This revelation was humbling because it reminded me of the impermanence of life.  I like to tell my Vinyasa yoga students that the only thing CONSTANT in life is CHANGE.  Circling the weathered stone walls of this tiny temple was an act of showing up to celebrate the impermanence of life: of the inevitable setting of the sun, of the slow rising of the moon, of the constant movement of the waves, of the gently persistent wind.  And it was an act of reverence to the fleeting nature of my own life, which is a short blip, but an important blip, in the grand scheme of the universe.  It was an act of yoga.

“Yoga, like art and like music, is understanding the art of impermanence. 

It is a way of learning the spiritual discipline of showing up for a sacramental event even if you don’t know what your experience will be, how your performance will be received, how your spirit will be expressed, or what you will learn.”

 

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ready for anything

Here’s my lesson: Although life is sacred, it is fleeting.  Although our troubles are arduous, they are fleeting.  Although our blessings are unlimited, they are fleeting.  There is an art to embracing the sacredness of creation and the sacredness of impermanence without futility overshadowing this lived experience.

And there is an art to showing up.   Even when it’s freezing and your fingers are numb.

Even when your head is about to explode.

Even when you don’t speak the same language, and you don’t know how to count the local currency, and you don’t share many of the same customs: there is an art to showing up: ready for anything.  You never know what you will learn.

So, here’s my question to you: When did you ‘show up’ to an experience, feeling totally underprepared, but ready to live life to the fullest?  What unexpected blessings or unexpected stumbling blocks arose?  What did you learn?  (If you don’t have one of these moments… book a plane ticket, quickly!  There are so many places to explore in this world!  Better yet, just walk outside your workplace and strike up a conversation with the first person you meet… you never know what your experience will be and what you will learn!)

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“Yoga, like art and like music, is understanding the art of impermanence. It is a way of learning the spiritual discipline of showing up for a sacramental event even if you don’t know what your experience will be, how your performance will be received, how your spirit will be expressed, or what you will learn.”

Can’t wait to hear back from you,

-lisa

 

Tiny Peruvian Pilgrimage part one: the essence of learning.

Tiny Peruvian Pilgrimage, part one: the essence of learning.

At least a hundred of you asked: “How was Peru?!  Was it fun?” when I returned from a seventeen day pilgrimage to Peru in August. It was difficult for me to answer with integrity: I felt, for the majority of the trip, ‘one step away from miserable.’ 

I underestimated the rage of altitude sickness (getting off the plane at nearly 12,000 feet above sea-level for the first stop on our itinerary at the legendary Lake Titicaca may not have been the wisest of choices).  I underestimated the magnitude of the Salkantay Mountain Pass Trek, which took my poor little legs three days to cover 40+ miles and 15,000 feet of altitude gain (and descent).  I underestimated the number of stairs in the sacred ruins of Macchu Picchu, the last Incan stronghold in the Cusco Region (last because the Spanish horses couldn’t manage to walk up the steep mountain switchbacks to find this gem of a palace city.  Smart horses.).  I underestimated the inevitability of traveler’s GI unpleasantness, the chill of the South American winter (no buildings have heat and windows don’t close) and how tiring it can be to pack and re-pack my one little backpack  every morning at 4:30 am to catch our next bus/plane/tour.  Saying the physicality of the trip was difficult is like saying Justin Bieber is a little bit popular.  But in the end (hindsight is reassuringly forgiving, isn’t it?) the trip was an invaluable learning experience and a cathartic spiritual pilgrimage. 

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photo cred: ME!

And I discovered something new about myself, about my connection (read: awe) of the earth and its sacredness, about the quality of my personal relationships, and about how I really want to spend my time in this life.  I learned.  And I was changed.  And, of course, I’ve got stories.  And some sweet pictures.  I read in a guide book that Peru will make a professional photographer out of anyone.

I only used my iPhone to snap pictures and they are incredible.  Maybe not as incredibly focused or detailed as Mr. Travel-guy with his 8-pocket vest, zip off pants, and water-proofed-four-lensed-nine pound-camera; but my little digital shots are fairly epic.  And certainly good enough for my travel-asana slideshow (go here!)

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my Ironman

My adventure trip to Peru was planned with my favorite person, my Ironman, who has set the lofty goal of taking an international trip every year.  He wants the total number of countries he’s visited to always be greater than his age.  So far, so good.  A year ago we started saving (read: selling lots of clothes on eBay, Aparigraha at its finest) for this trip to Peru.

Why?  I used to work for an anti-poverty, sustainable community development organization called Outreach International.  Outreach International (my friend Josh is their brand manager, check out their website!) has several promising reforestation projects in Bolivia; the pictures of the highlands and the communities who are involved in these development projects captured my heart.  I need to go there, I thought.  And see the intricately colored textiles and meet these hardworking people and eat their quinoa.  And also pet llamas.  But then I remembered that it’s ridiculously cold and windy and barren (there’s a reason Bolivians literally wear blankets)… so my thoughts shifted to Peru, Bolivia’s next door neighbor.  Where I knew I could step foot in my fairytale of a heaven: The Amazon Rainforest. 

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little lisa in kindergarten

As an educator, my favorite definition of ‘learning’ is a change in an individual caused by experience.”  My most formative learning experience? I’m six years old, my hair is not yet permed, I’m wearing a black polka dot party dress and jellies, sitting next to my friend Bekah in circle time, and my kindergarten teacher pulls out a Big Book about The Rainforest.  I’m hooked.  Our kindergarten class created the rainforest within our classroom confines: covering the walls with trees, hand-painted animal portraits, tissue paper flowers, and creepy-crawly bugs.  We listened to cassette tapes called ‘Sounds of the Rainforest,’ we read books about the ecology of water cycles and life cycles of the flora and fauna, we watched video tapes featuring panoramics of the Amazon Rainforest, and we even researched our favorite rainforest animal (hello, Mr. Three-Toed Sloth, your smile is gorgeous!).

Then.  The truth came out: thousands of miles of this rich ecosystem, which harbors countless unique species and plants were and are being destroyed by logging, mining, and agriculture companies.  Little kindergarten Lisa?  Devastated.  (I’m sure I cried.  I cry pretty easily.  Remember this post?).  What I learned about the destruction of the rainforest changed me for life:  I spent my elementary career organizing penny fundraisers to buy parcels of rainforest in Bolivia for protection, I contributed my allowance to the World Wildlife Fund, I even started the first neighborhood environmentalist club.  Some called me a nerd.  I called myself an environmentalist.  (Pause: do you have time for the BEST part about this story?  I wrote a monthly newsletter for our club, E.K.A.D. “Earth Kids All Day” and totally misspelled the word “environment” in all of the issues.  Where was spell-check when I needed it?  Wait… where was my professional proof-reading dad?  Looking back, that spelling mistake is honestly the only part of this episode that I’m embarrassed by.  Not the hilarious pictures of me posing by the pile of trash that my ‘club’ picked up in our neighborhood one summer day.  No, definitely not those.)

Today, I’m still influenced by the experience of learning about the rainforest.  I try to live gracefully, so that my actions have little negative impact on the Earth.  I eat vegetarian to reduce the demand for more ‘wild’ land to be converted to meat-producing-agriculture.  I reduce my waste by recycling, reducing, and reusing as much as possible and I practice aparigraha (non-hoarding) of the Earth’s resources in countless ways.  If you are interested, check out my April Aparigraga Series which offers advice on how you can also live more gently on this Sacred Earth.

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photo cred MAD

My learning experience in kindergarten (thanks, Mrs. Moore) set me on a path that clarified my life’s choices into adulthood.  And stirred within my soul a longing that inspired this pilgrimage to South America.  To the sacred sites of Peru.  To the heart of the rainforest.  To the base of a tree where a three-toed sloth stealthily made its way to its morning napping hammock, grinning at two ogling Americans and their silly little iPhones.

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If you ask me “How was Peru?”  I will tell you: It was not a vacation, it was a learning experience.  I learned about the traditional cultures of the Peruvian highlanders, about the medicinal potions of the rainforest shamans, about the sacred ceremonies of the Incan travelers on their pilgrimages to Macchu Piccu, about the Andean religion and the customs of the Guinea Pig delicacy, and about travelling with the person you love (and how to still love them when the travelling experiences are less-than-ideal.)  But more importantly, what I learned was this:

If you have a dream, follow it.  Focus, commit, choose a badass travel partner, and make it a reality.

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the walls in our Eco-lodge room were open to the Rainforest!

What learning experience has caused you to change as an individual?   Can you think of one specific ‘learning’ that changed your attitude, your perspective or your habits?  I’m so interested: tell me about it!

Stay tuned for Tiny Peruvian Pilgrimage Part Two (just a few days away!).  Thanks for your interest, support, and hunger to learn.

-lisa

 

the art of transfiguration.

**Author’s note: I’m travelling abroad this month (I’ve been dreaming of seeing the rainforest since kindergarten, and dreaming of climbing Machu Picchu since I was in undergrad), and as I prepared for this journey to Peru, lessons I encountered a few years ago while on a journey across the western United States kept occupying my thoughts.  This article was originally published on sf yoga mag in 2011.  I’m re-posting my own words… you’ll want to read until the end, because I recommend two must-read books.

 The art of transfiguration.  

by Lisa M. Ash, 2011

Peering up from the highway to the ridge of a jagged, red-rock horizon, I was awed by the evidence of creative transfiguration that is manifest in exquisite landscapes. Nature’s features, simultaneously time standing ascetically still and time moving at the staggering speed of creation.  I recently drove from Kansas City, Missouri, to Orange, California: camping, hiking, and meditating along the way. The myriad of scapes racing past my window as I traveled across the country served as a humbling reminder that nature’s course was chosen millennia ago.

What I saw was a blessing of the moment.  It was just one momentary meeting of the immutable, and undeniably phenomenal, cooperation of wind, water, movement, change, and Nature in motion.

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photo cred: EMA

 

Gorgeous landscapes—whose rock faces, sandstone formations, and courageous fauna are in the midst of constant tumultuous change—simply accept the change as perfectly normal.  Continuous molding, drifting, forming, burning, growing, shrinking, living and dying are all unceasingly embraced.  This embrace of transformation honors the natural ritam, or rhythm, of life as constant transfiguration.  This embrace honors Being. This honors the spirituality of the yogi:

“Spirituality is the art of transfiguration.  We should not force ourselves to change by hammering our lives into any predetermined shape…. It is far more creative to work with the idea of mindfulness rather than with the idea of will.”              –J. O’Donahue

An inspiring example of this is the sandstone formations that shelter the rugged, unforgiving terrain of southern Utah.  The unique formations reveal millennia of rock layers shaped by the forces of erosion and weathering acting in concert.  Made famous by the extreme sport and tourism industry of Moab, Utah, these tall, proud rocks are the face of a drastic desert-scape that inspires adventure.  For the yogi, the constantly evolving desert formations inspire contemplation; they are visible evidence of the Bhagavad Gita’s charge to embrace change as a necessary part of physical existence, understanding that the Essence of Life remains immutable even in the face of the storm.  In my eyes, the absolute power of the Living God is the invisible face of this ever-weathering sandstone.

The cavernous formations not only inspire a sense of humility by their sheer enormity, but they lend testimony to the miracle of transformation through surrender to creative power.

What if we, like the rocks, began to trust in the creative power of transformation through surrender, as opposed to personal will?  What if we, like the rocks, sensed the Divine touch of wind and water shifting and moving little bits of our lives, not with resistance but with a welcoming of erosion?

photo cred: McCormick

photo cred: McCormick

I believe the challenge of a yogi is, in fact, to embrace the immense creative potential in each gust of wind and in each passing breath. There’s really nothing new in this: for centuries, humans have been humbled and awed by the role of wind in the crafting of nature.  Just as each whisper of wind shapes the wild vastness of an epic rock-scape, one mindful breath can awaken creativity, change, and transfiguration in the lived experience of an individual.

The testimony of the desert-scape is that

creation is meant for transformation through breath.

 The challenge is to use our yoga practice as life practice.  The challenge is to breathe into the forgotten spaces of our lives, trusting in the embrace of this breath will be an embrace of the transfiguration of our spirit.  I challenge you to breathe with me.

-lisa

When has a travel experience changed your outlook on life?  Tell me where you went and how you learned to breathe?  When has your life been changed in drastic ways and you’ve learned to trust the movement of the breath?  I’d love to hear your stories….

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photo cred: EMA

Further Reading:  

Hawley, J.  The Bhagavad Gita: A walkthrough for Westerners.  New World Library: Novato, CA. 2001

O’Donahue, J.  Anama Cara: A book of Celtic Wisdom.  Harper Collins: New York, NY. 1997