Yoga yoga yoga!

Mind on Yoga

Since returning from leading backpacking trips over the summer, I’ve been reinvesting myself in my yoga practice, expanding to new places physically and mentally. I started doing a daily yoga practice last year when I quit my office job, and the transition from once-in-a-while to everyday was astounding. My hips and legs opened up dramatically and my heart felt lighter. I didn’t make time to continue my practice with all the outdoor time I had this summer, but now I’ve redoubled my efforts. I bought an unlimited month at a studio (previously I almost always practiced on my own, or to podcasts) and have been going 8-9 times a week. I feel pretty lucky to be able to make the time for that, and the constant engagement has once again deepened my understanding and commitment to yoga. I’ve also been reading about more of the philosophical side of the art (including B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Life, which is fantastic), bringing connection to my meditation practice and to the musings I’ve had lately on vulnerability, creativity, openness, and play. I’ve been coming across some big ideas lately.

Expansion and Integration

I’ve never thought about the cycle of expansion and integration before, but it’s been showing up on all different time scales in my life lately. On the shortest scale there is the breath, with the inhale expanding one’s body and the exhale deepening a pose with contraction. Over several breaths in a pose, the body expands out through the bones, and integrates back to the center with the muscles, creating depth and balance. On a longer time scale, our bodies try new poses and stretch our comfort zones, then take some time to grow accustomed to a new range of motion. This is how growth happens in yoga as well as life in general. This past year for me has been a time of major expansion in my life. I’ve been doing all sorts of new things, testing my limits with creativity, the outdoors, and the idea of teaching. Aside from my yoga practice, I’ve been taking it easy for the last month or so. I’m using an expansion in my yoga practice to integrate some of the other big things I’ve been working on into my whole being.


Balance is clearly an important part of yoga. There are all sorts of balancing poses, on feet, on hands, on one of each, etc, etc. Balancing in space is a great way to bring focus to a pose. It also brings our awareness to a balance in the fourth dimension, time. When we lean too far into to future or the past, we falter in our awareness and slip into negativity. We stress about things to come, regret things gone by. I like the idea that one’s physical position in a posture relates to a mental tendency to be a little bit ahead or behind. Obviously we need to do a little planning for the future, but I’m pretty sure being present and conscious of the moment is one of the most important factors to creating a deep sense of happiness.

The Gunas: Tamas, Rajas, Sattva

A month ago I had never heard of the Gunas, but the idea has come up a lot recently. I’m still working on figuring out what the whole thing is about, but it’s kind of like the three threads of energy that encompass the universe. There is tamas, which is the grounded, heavy, solid energy. It can be dark, isolating, and is typically associated with the body. Rajas is a bright, active, perhaps frenetic energy which is associated with the mind. Sattva is luminosity, balance, and presence. In class we’ve been focusing on balancing the tamas of the body with the rajas of the mind, and sitting in a place of sattva. I’m pretty new at this whole thing, but this has translated to the idea of expansion and integration in my practice. There is a balance (both metaphorically and physically) of simultaneously extending the limbs and pulling them back in, and this creates a profound sense of presence and freedom. Part of this comes through visualization (another crucial part of yoga and all other aspects of life), which ties the mind to the body and to the moment in time.


All this is turning out to be transformational in my life right now. I feel a renewed sense of life energy when I practice these things, and I’m excited to delve deeper into them. With or without the physical postures of yoga, finding balance through awareness is something I’ll be working on for a long time. I’d love to hear your experiences with yoga or any of these ideas!

Meditate with Max!

A Veil of Perception

I’ve been meditating regularly for the past several months, spurred on by an intensely quieting trek in the woods and a major life transition. It has been bringing to my mind all sorts of thoughts on reality, perception, and consciousness. It has also allowed me the mental clarity to focus hard on things like art and music, despite not having any sort of schedule or deadlines or external impetus. It’s a wonderful practice which I think can improve any life.

I should probably preface this by saying that I don’t really know anything about the subject, just a few things I’ve read and noticed. There are so many ways of describing meditation, but I’ve been noticing most recently changes in perception. Buddhist philosophy talks about about maya, the fact that our interaction with reality is an illusion. It’s easy to read these words, but harder to internalize them. Regular practice of meditation starts to give a sense of the truth in the idea.

At first, our perception of the world around us seems pretty accurate. Especially if you have good eye sight, things are probably pretty clear, depth is well understood by the brain, colors are intact and go well together. It’s pretty hard to know what things actually are, but it seems clear that they at least are something. But here’s the thing about perception: everything goes through our brains. And all of our brains are different. Who knows where some peoples’ brains have been. Even barring major malfunctions, they are filled with memories, fears, desires and intentions. Everything we see is tinted by everything we have seen, and everything we can imagine seeing. At the same time, the impermanence of these things becomes clear. We will only be here for a short while, memories of us only slightly longer.

This might seem like not such a big deal, but I think actually feeling the truth behind it is really important. Perhaps impermanence and the lack of uniform reality could lead one down a path of apathy and disconnectedness. Instead, I believe that in combination with a focus on compassion, it is freeing to know that nothing lasts forever, that fear and discomfort will evaporate as quickly as they arrived, if you let them. There is a certain levity and joy in this state of mind, one that allows full expression and easy improvisation. There is little danger in trying new things, in reaching out, and in putting yourself out there.

A gray, rainy day in Seattle can be miserable if that is how you perceive it, but it can also be delicious and refreshing. Either way, it certainly will not last forever, and how we interact with it is up to us.

Important Words

I’ve noticed a shift recently in the words I’ve been thinking about the most, and the words to which I attach positive meaning. I’ve never really considered before what specific words define my life, but it seems like maybe a good way to examine transitions and values. Here are some words that have previously been important to me, but which are now receding:

  • Efficiency
  • Productivity
  • Achievement
  • Success
  • Money
  • Winning
  • Multitasking
  • Speed
  • Perfection
  • Sarcasm
  • Cleverness

They tend to be business- and achievement-oriented, but relatively cold and impersonal. I think this is a fair reflection of the pressure society puts on us to “make something of our life,” get promotions, and accrue wealth. You know, capitalism. In the past several months, however, my words have become much more touchy-feely, much more directed at emotional health and growth. A lot of these words still feel far away, but I do feel like I’m at least moving toward them:

  • Love
  • Compassion
  • Synchronicity
  • Play
  • Abundance
  • Flourishing
  • Authenticity
  • Gratitude
  • Joy
  • Improvisation
  • Intuition
  • Connection
  • Communication
  • Community
  • Creativity
  • Mindfulness
  • Intention

Coming up with these word lists was a fun exercise in stepping back and examining where my life is, and where I want it to go. I found it a lot harder to come up with words that used to be important but aren’t any more, because, well, I haven’t been thinking about them much. And writing them down makes me realize how much of a relief it is to let them go.

I think it’s important to note that some of the receding words like “productivity” and “efficiency” aren’t necessarily bad things, but they are also not goals in and of themselves. They say nothing of the value of the thing created. I doubt anybody has ever laid on their death bed, smiling and reflecting back on how wonderfully efficient his life had been.

What are your words?

This is Life

I took a long run yesterday and thought about how people recently have commented that I seem to be doing so much with my life despite my unemployment. This seems like a compliment, I think, so thank you! And it’s true that I have been unemployed before and not done nearly so much. But there is something different this time. It’s not exactly a sense of urgency; I think I’ve maintained a sense of taking things slowly. It’s more a feeling of: this is my life.

This is it.

Right now.

I’m not in some transition period between jobs. I’m not transitioning between school and work, or work and travel. I’m deep into the only transition there is, the transition from birth to death, and what I do today and tomorrow and the next day is my life.

My last stint of unemployment was in 2009/2010 for about 9 months. I was looking for a job the whole time and felt entirely consumed by the process. I did a few other things along the way (mostly I got a lot better at guitar and rock climbing, and read Infinite Jest), but I never felt productive or fulfilled. I was able to stay relatively happy through copious amounts of exercise and coffee, but the job search was exhausting and distracted me from what I had long valued in my life. I didn’t feel like I had the mental time or space to make art, partly because I didn’t feel like making art was what I was “doing” with my life. I was looking for a job, making myself employable, and working hard to make that employment what I was doing with my life. I was not an artist. I was an office worker, temporarily displaced.

This time things are different. I am living consciously, and I have a better understanding of the fact that my life is a collection of days lived, routines established, routines broken, people met, people loved, good books read and absorbed, emotions expressed, and beauty created. What am I doing with my life? I’m not “doing” anything. I’m living. Life is not an activity to be completed, rather an adventure to explore, a wonderful opportunity to grow for a while and then fade away.

So I’m spending my time on a lot of different things, enjoying the fact that life is full and vibrant and profound and hilarious. My run yesterday was thirteen miles, part of training for a marathon. It took me through or past eight parks in Seattle and around one lake, and it was gorgeous. I’ve been painting almost everyday, aiming to have a solid portfolio to show sometime in the next several weeks. I go rock climbing two or three times a week, depending on my tendon integrity. I do yoga most days at least once, and try to meditate every day between five and thirty minutes. I’m part of a community garden, a book club, a string quartet, and an indie-rock band that is starting to pick up some steam in the Seattle music scene. I play guitar and sing almost every day, cook meals with my roommates, and spend quality time with them playing games involving throwing dried beans into jars. I go on outdoor adventures and road trips to visit friends and national parks. I just started helping out a friend with his business leading after school music programs, and I’m in the process of starting a hummus business of my own. I occasionally write blog posts.

These are the things I value, and I am so excited to be able to do them all. Not everybody values the same things, and some of those activities might sound awful to you. But here is the main point. Last time I had time on my hands, I forgot what I valued, what was important to me in life. Once I was employed, I had less time on my hands and my forgetfulness deepened. I became wrapped up in routine and busy-ness. Money felt important, as if it were an end goal in itself. My brain got used to frying in front of a computer screen for hours a day. These things were bringing me closer to death at the same pace I’ve always been moving, but they weren’t allowing my life to flourish. Eventually I realized that these were not my values and I worked out a way to change my daily life to reflect what is important to me. So far it has worked. I feel good. I feel alive. I still drink copious amounts of coffee.

Taking the Plunge: Part 3

It has been a slow plunge to take fully, but I am now solidly submerged. I just read an article in the New Yorker, so my thoughts are filtered through the lens of what it is like to be a twentysomething.

This past Thursday was the last day at my office job. I’ve been working two days a week for about 4 months now, which has been amazing but not perfect. I’ve been able to pay all my bills, and so not draw down my savings which I planned to keep me afloat for about the next year or so. The year or so starts now. Some imperfections of part-time: a gradual feeling of disconnect from the work, making it more and more rote as the weeks go by. A feeling of not-entire commitment to art and creativity. An excuse to not get a lot of other work done, because, hey, my bills are paid.

Already, life is coming into focus. I am twenty-eight. I have no income, but I have no doubt that I could have income if I needed it. I have a bachelor’s degree in physics, a master’s degree in geology, I’ve worked in sustainable agriculture, carpentry, and green building, and I have a feeling that none of them are where I want to put my life’s effort. I am planning to apply to art school in Iceland, but also have no idea how long I’ll want to do that. I am currently reading about five good books and have no conception (literally, zero) of where I will be in two or five or ten years. I am single and have been for a while, and I can’t really imagine what it would be like to incorporate another person into my life. I am not usually lonely. I spend between one and two dozen hours a week at coffee shops. I try to make art and play music everyday, but rarely manage for three days in a row. I am working on starting a tiny hummus business. I exercise twice most days and meditate about five times a week. I am about to take a 10-day road trip to Southern California because I have that much free time. I am completely at sea and full of contradiction, and I am the happiest I’ve ever been.

It is hard to say what is going on. I have always thought that happiness would come through some greater purpose, by some well-examined life on a direct path to some clear-cut definition of success. I have always been competitive and driven, but I have not always been happy. Now that I am relatively aimless, I feel present and alive and exuberant. I have the time to be inspired by life. I laugh when the sun is out in the morning (a rarity in wintertime Seattle). I also laugh when it is raining, thinking about all the people grumbling. I laugh at the way raindrops ripple a puddle. If you had a recording of my life, you would think I was crazy, laughing all the time and grinning while I walk around town in the cold and damp. There are some concrete things that contribute to this behavior: low but daily doses of caffeine, vitamin D supplements, consistent exercise, lack of internet/TV/media, good sleep. But it is the intangibles that really do the trick. Freedom of time and space in good measure (not so much as to be bogged down by choice), quality socializing, a clear mind (aided enormously by the lack of internet/TV/media), a desire for creativity, expression, and openness.

Will this happiness last? I don’t know. I do feel a push for something bigger, but a lot of the things I’m chipping away at now could be bigger at some point. I’ll probably start volunteering when I’m back from my road trip, which should help inre: purpose, community, socializing. But here’s why I think this all might be valuable even if I never become a successful artist or writer or musician. I feel like I am teaching my brain how to be happy. I’ve been reading a bunch of neuroscience-y books, and it sounds like this is possible. Maybe the most important thing I am accomplishing right now is setting up pathways in my brain that will persist beyond this expansionary phase of my life (although I don’t plan for this phase to end). I’m about to read Happiness, which I think will solidify these ideas and probably be life-changing in lots of positive ways. Also good: A General Theory of Love, The Geography of Bliss, anything by Rumi.

People seem to be worried about whether this life is economically feasible. I guess my response is, what’s the point of having an economically feasible life if it isn’t one you want? Is the purpose of our perplexingly short time on this planet to make ends meet? Of course not. To be slightly pragmatic yet thoroughly optimistic: if I am deeply happy and intensely satisfied with what I am doing with my life, and willing to share that with others, it will become economically feasible. If I make bad art long enough and love doing it, it will get better. If I am a terrible writer for ten years and put my heart and soul into it, at some point I’ll be a good writer. If my fingers are slow on the guitar and my voice is out of tune, but I do it every day because there is nothing I’d rather be doing, eventually I’ll play beautifully. I feel lucky to have a head start on so many good things, and to be in a place where I can focus on expanding my own awareness of life. So here I am, submerged.