What’s in a name?

Someone recently apologized to me for calling me “Deb”.  I, for one have never been overly attached to my name, simply because I’ve always disliked it.  “Deb” is what my mother calls me, “Debbie” is my professional name, “Deborah” is on my birth certificate, “Debsa” is what one of my dancers used to call me, “Debbeleeinskichuck” is what one colleague calls me, “Deebee” is how one director pronounced my name and for several months I answered to the name of “Susan”.  One dance teacher just couldn’t remember my name and somehow settled on “Susan”.  He was mortified when he found out he had been using the wrong name but as I told him, I knew who he was talking to…so all was good.

So much emphasis is paid to using people’s names.  When you use someone’s name, it tells that person that they are important enough to remember.  Plus, using a person’s name in a positive environment imprints on their brain, thereby associating you and the activity involved with contentment.  Although that also applies to negative environments.  My mother using my birth name plus my middle name meant I was in BIG trouble.  Even now, hearing those two names together makes me wary. 

All of us have been conditioned since childhood, upon hearing our names, to stop and listen to what is being said.  In a classroom setting, that’s powerful thing.  I once worked in a yoga studio where the director wanted all of his teachers to use the students’ names during the class.  While I understood his logic for the reasons I just stated, I didn’t comply with his rule for several reasons.

I personally do not like it when teachers use my name in a class.  I am known in some professional circles of the city, and while it’s nice to be recognized for the value that you bring to a group, I also value my privacy.  I practice yoga for my physical and mental health.  For me, it is a private time within a community setting where my place in the world is simply one small cog among many.  A reflection of the big picture.  I have also had a few stalkers in my life, one of which is still active.  Hearing my name called out in a public setting always makes my breath catch and who wants a panic attack in a yoga class, even if it only lasts a few seconds?  

Using people’s names in a classroom setting shifts the dynamics of a room.  When you call out a person’s name in a class, other students notice.  They notice who gets attention, and who is not getting attention which leads to self-doubt and dissatisfaction.  So, unless you prepared to say the name of every single student in the room, don’t use any of them.  That’s what creates a truly equitable environment.

At that particular studio, I watched how the use of names in the practice room had led to a sense of privilege among some of the students, and while I was glad that the queen bees created a close sense of community and belonging with the studio and with the studio director, I also became very aware of the state of exclusion that was created for others.  They were the students who left the practice room feeling isolated and ignored.  They were the students who changed their clothes silently in the corner of the dressing room.  They were the students who silently took their coats and slid out the door without looking back.  They were the students who never returned to the studio.  I do recognize that using people’s names is an incredible asset and I do recognize that it leads to easier communication, but it still does not change my positions on inclusion or respect for privacy.  To make sure that everyone feels welcomed into the studio means you have to create a level playing field.  I use no one’s name in the room (unless I am right next to them, and only they can hear me).

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Aging is a fascinating process.  I feel like I’m in a constant state of surprise.  No matter what I had thought that it was going to be like… it somehow shows up as something completely different.  

Although the aging process is continuous, the signs of aging seem to appear in stages.  My first encounter with the body’s decline was in my late thirties when as a professional dancer I noticed that my ankles joints were feeling fragile, especially when landing jumps.  That meant that it was time to retire from stage and focus on directing and teaching.  It was also time to develop a physical training routine that could support the life of a dance teacher.  You’d be surprised (or not) on how easy it is to injure yourself while teaching dance.  There’s not always enough time to warm up our own bodies properly beforehand in order to execute clear physical demonstrations of the steps.  I personally was no longer interested in the judgemental environment of the dance studio, so my physical routine shifted to the gym and eventually I entered the world of yoga to supplement that training.  

Aging is to be put into the constant state of a beginner.  How do you overcome this body weakness logically and safely, what can help this new ache, how do I reconnect this apparent physical disconnect?  There is no end to the avenues of research, and I love that I am continuing to learn new things.  Sometimes I wish that I knew then what I know now, but that’s how life goes and I’m happy that I can teach the next generation to be better than I was.  I’m also aware that in terms of the big picture, I know absolutely nothing and I’m okay with that.  

Now, not everything is roses in aging.  I’m not thrilled with the wrinkles and thinning hair that bruise my ego and I do wish I could continue to wear my favourite earrings that no longer fit because the holes in my ears have collapsed due to disappearing collagen.  But many years ago, I promised myself that I would age as authentically as I could as an example to the kids I work with.  I find it sad that people feel the need to resort to surgery and invasive procedures to maintain a positive sense of self.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if wrinkles and sags were embraced as the badges of honor that they are?  They say, “I’ve lived a long life” and that in itself is a remarkable achievement.  Many in my life haven’t made it this far and I still find that incredibly sad.  I would have loved to have seen how they would have evolved as they aged.  Would they have been just as outgoing and as crazy?  What new interests would they have pursued?  What adventures could we have embarked on together?  Our lives are enriched by the people around us and each one that leaves, takes an irreplaceable part of our hearts. 

The discrimination of the elderly is a real problem.  There was a teacher/receptionist at one of the studios that I worked at who always treated me like a five-year-old child.  If any of the other (and younger) teachers had told her there was a problem with the front desk computer, she would immediately have investigated it.  If I told her, she would ask me if I had turned on the machine.  She slowed down her speech and enunciated her words.  I was given lessons on how to turn on the computer, how to turn up the lights in the practice room, how to use the credit card machine, how to turn on the sound system, etc.  No matter was too trivial for her to school me in.  It honestly took every bit of patience that I could muster, not to take her out.  Think about it for a minute.  How much stuff is in the head of a twenty-year-old versus a sixty-year-old?  Yeah…exactly.  

I have discovered a superpower in aging…invisibility.  People either don’t see or they don’t take any notice of the elderly, which is fabulous!  I can now slip through a crowded group of people hassle-free.  What I wouldn’t have given to have that power when I was in my twenties and every outing was a running of the gauntlet through men’s obscene comments, gestures and touching.  I no longer have to worry about being groped on public transit or having some man follow me down the street while shouting obscenities. Even the crazies on public transit leave me alone!  On one afternoon trip, I got passed over by two men who stopped next to every single passenger in the train car.  One was demanding money from everyone, and the other was describing in detail how great it felt to squeeze the life out of someone.  They didn’t see me…hurray!  

Why are so many people afraid of aging?  I know that for me it’s the fear of being helpless and unable to care for myself.  Do I have any solutions?  Not yet, but I’m working on it…and one of those solutions might have to be acceptance.

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I recently had a receptionist scream at me at the top of her lungs to stop giving her attitude.  Uh…what?  That was her response to my request for better diligence on some recent covid protocols that included checking the vaccine status of students.  Luckily there were no clients in the space when this child lost her control and started frothing at the mouth.

Wow.  From zero to one hundred in less than a second.  Unfortunately, she is not the only person I have encountered who missed that important lesson towards adulthood which is learning to control your emotions and behave in a civilized manner.  Violence begets violence.  If someone attacks you, your reaction is usually to either fight back or to run.  And yet neither reaction helps in solving the conflict.  That is only achieved in calm, rational dialogue.

For all those people yelling at their fellow human beings.  Ask yourself, when is that last time that you felt motivated and happy to do something after being yelled at.  Did you feel good about yourself or were you simply shamed?  Yelling at someone doesn’t work, unless you’re in the “beaten dog” camp, where you think that beating, starving, and torturing an animal into fearful submission is a good way to go.  For the record, that’s called animal abuse and when you apply those same tactics to humans, that’s a human rights violation.

Now I know that it’s a large leap from a screaming twenty-year-old receptionist to the horrors inflicted on humans around the world, but I would argue that it’s not such a big leap.  Once you allow yourself to cross that line, where’s to say you won’t cross the next line, then the next line, and then the next line?  Simply look at the out-of-control actions of the people who overran the USA Capital on January 6th.  Demonstrations are by nature about dissatisfaction, anger and about taking action against something, however somewhere in that movement on January 6th a line was crossed where physical violence was acceptable.  Responsible adults do not inflict physical violence on other adults.  Period.  I can already hear the argument, but what if they’re threatening you?  I would hate to live my life in fear of what someone else might do to me and I would never arm myself for fear of physical harm.  No wonder all these people are on edge.  They are living in a constant state of fear and that takes an enormous toll on the mind.  

I am no saint.  I am blunt, self-centered, undiplomatic, and opinionated.  I’m sure my friends could help me add a few more adjectives to that list, which is why I love them.  They have no fear about telling me when I’m being an ass and trust me, all of us have those days.  One of the side effects of controlling your emotions as a rational adult is that you have days when it’s like a pressure cooker…you’ve dealt with a nonending litany of idiots and stupid ideas and along comes one problem too many.  The pressure cooker was full and now it’s going to explode!  Exploding is fine…we all need it but learn how to explode safely without causing others harm.

I used to use a method for angry and anxious dancers back when I was touring which was this:  We would go off into a place where we couldn’t be heard by others.  I would take out my watch and say “go”.  The dancer would just yell and say the most awful things that you would never imagine could come out of their mouths.  I would nod “yes” and say things like “wow” and “unbelievable”.  At the end of five minutes (and sometimes they would stop beforehand), it would be over.  They felt better for having let it go, and we never talked about what was said.  My function in this exercise was to simply be a witness and validator to their distress.

I live with my best friend, and we have found that after so many years of knowing each other, that we can generally pick up on the warning signals of the other’s moments of being overwhelmed by life.  And we’re both pretty good at helping each other diffuse the anxiety either by talking it out or finding the humour in the situation.  I do know that when I’m feeling overtaxed by life that the first person that I’m going to be snippy with is the person in front of me.  Isn’t that always the way?  There’s some truth to the saying that you only hurt the ones you love.  Again, friends are the ones who can tell you when you’ve crossed a line and are acting like an ass.  It’s important to keep those people close to you, to trust them and to let them pull you back from the edge.  That’s what best friends do.

Back to the twenty-year-old screamer.  My first reaction was to walk out of the studio and let her explain to management and the students why I wasn’t teaching.  But I’ve been trained to act like an adult.  I apologized for the delivery of my request and if I hurt her feelings, I asked her about herself and found some common ground.  The report of this incident to the manager was that there was a conflict and that we made up and all was perfect.   Oh, please child…I’m an old lady who used to travel the world with a bunch of high maintenance prima donnas.  In what world do you think that I can’t talk a temper tantrum diva off the wall and make them do exactly what I want…and get them to think that it was their idea?  Yep.

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Meditation 101, part 2

I eventually ruled out mindful observation as a gateway to a meditative state.  I also realized that although it would have probably been really beneficial for me to be able to chill out in the midst of chaos…given my current state of mind, it wasn’t going to happen.  It felt more like running up against the same concrete wall again and again and again.  There’s a point where you need to recognize that there’s a concrete wall in front of you.  It was time to switch tactics.  

I decided to explore methods of breathwork in order to help me focus on the present, and I started with a method commonly known as square breath.  Breathe in for four counts, hold the inhale for four counts, breathe out for four counts and hold the exhale for four counts.  Square breath certainly made me deal with the present moment.  I found that hoIding the exhale triggered a panic attack, that was followed by a big and anxiety relieving gasp for air…which made the act of breathing in for four counts almost impossible.  As I progressed into the exercise, my square breathing went more like this: Inhale four counts and feeling good, Hold the inhale and chill out, Exhale two counts feeling dread, Exhale two more counts while feeling the panic come into play, Hold the exhale while silently chanting, “help, help, help….”, Gasp two counts and attempt to chill out during the next two counts, Hold the inhale feeling okay but knowing what was about to happen yet again…and so on…and so on.  Well, at least I was “in the moment”.  It was time to try something else.

I switched to counting the number of breaths that I took rather than focusing on the rhythm.  On one level, it was an improvement.  On another level, it triggered my workaholic concept of time management.  It felt like I was pacing inside my head the entire time, with every breath bringing a higher level of anxiety, while waiting for this to be over so that I could get on with my productive day.  I think you could say that this was a prime example of someone who could have used some meditation to chill out and I recognized the irony of the situation.  I began negotiating with myself.  You let me have this time for say one hundred breaths, and I will not go over the allotted time needed.  That way we’ll both win.  The set number of breaths did help to dispel my time management angst but on the other hand, it never felt like I was able to delve into the practice of truly keeping the mind focused on the present moment.  My mind either in the past, where I had just counted, and on the future, what my next count would be. 

Over the next few months, I tried several variations of the breath count.  I recited letters from the alphabet over and over with each breath, I repeated words or phrases with my inhales and exhales, and what I did eventually accomplish was to get in touch with my inner two-year-old… and not in a good way.  I had unleashed that screaming pouting inner child who was kicking up a monstrous temper tantrum every time I sat down to practice: “I don’t have time”, “This is stupid”, and my favourite, “What’s the point? We’re all going to die anyway”.

The frustration continued to grow and despite my dissatisfaction, I pushed onward, reminding myself to trust the process, trust the guy who introduced me to this concept and to accept that change is usually a painful process.  I have reached a modicum of success and that success has come with several adjustments that I made to suit my personality.  There was a point where I decided to apply my functional approach of physical training to my mental training, which is to not force the body into a specific method but to adjust the method to suit the user.  Everyone’s physical body has a unique way of moving and logic follows that their mental functions would also be as unique.  I now use the timer application on my phone when I meditate.  It allows me to be comfortable with the amount of time that I have predetermined to sit without the fear of wasting that precious commodity.  I tend to use breath techniques that focus on the mechanics of breathing, such as alternate nostril breath, where you inhale through one nostril and exhale out the other and then reverse that process, while using your fingers and thumb resting on the forehead and nose can help you control the speed of your breathing.  It can also be done without the fingers.  Feeling the air move in and out in a controlled manner really allows me to hone my focus into the present.  On the days when I feel the need to simple sit and breathe, I use mala beads, a string of one hundred and eight beads that my fingers slip over with every inhale.  When my timer goes off, I am done and for my quantitative workaholic nature, this is perfect.

Meditation has helped me become more present in the moment and it has helped me become more present to the people around me.  I recently took part in a meditation workshop that was held on Zoom.  It was a three-hour event that went over some meditation basics plus the individual insights and experiences of long-time practitioners.  True, a lot of elements that were presented were things that most of us attendees already knew, but as with presentation I’ve ever attended, there were new little gems of knowledge, some recent research, and some examined exploration.  It’s a shame that many of the attendees probably missed most these nuggets of wisdom.  Zoom has a chat feature, and it was firing off at full speed throughout the entire lecture.  A group of people who were unable to focus for a small period of time on the simple task of listening.  It seemed to me that they could have used some meditation.

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Meditation 101, Part 1

I would never claim to be an expert on meditation and my journey into the practice is one of novice ponderer.  Plus, I am one of those people that must examine all aspects of a new concept before I am truly comfortable with it.  It takes even more contemplation and examination of that new concept before I feel myself qualified to teach it…so far as meditation goes…not there yet.

My initial impression regarding meditation was that it was about stopping the brain from thinking.  Wow was I wrong…and that’s only one of my many, many misconceptions about the practice.  The first lightbulb of understanding went off early in my initial yoga teacher training.  It wasn’t simply the message that made the impact; it was the messenger.  He was my age, he was incredibly calm and soft spoken, there a was an air of mischief about him and he didn’t present his ideas as facts.  He merely presented what he himself had experienced and what he had observed of the world around him.  Here’s what he said, I have forgotten his exact words so I’m paraphrasing this:

Sometimes when you sit down to meditate, you open the door into a monastery filled with tranquil peace, and sometimes you open the door into a disco.

This from a man who had spent a lifetime meditating and guiding meditation.  He inspired me to start that journey and it brought me into one of the most frustrating periods of my life.  But first, a little background into my personality.  

When I was a child, I hated Sundays.  Sundays may have been my parents’ very needed day of rest at the end of a long workweek, but for me Sundays were painfully boring.  There was no school to attend and no dance classes to go to.  I was an introverted child who had moved across the USA several times and I didn’t make friends easily.  School and dance classes were my main source of mental and physical stimulation.  Well, that and unfortunately torturing my little sister.  There was nothing to do on Sundays except go to church and hang out with my family (I had two younger siblings at the time).

A frequent family Sunday activity, which my father loved, included drives in the car.  The boredom factor was amplified by my being seated in the middle of the backseat as a buffer between my warring siblings and by my not being tall enough to see anything out of the windows.  I spent hours of waiting for the inertia to end.  When you factor in the low self-esteem of a child who moved around the country a lot, the battered ego of a ballerina in a negative reinforcement training environment and the insecurity of being a female in a male dominated world, you might begin to understand why I’ve never been very good with being still.  I continue to wake up every morning in a race to grab every opportunity that the world presents to me, which has forever had me either working non-stop like a demon, or crashing from exhaustion…one hundred percent or zero, with nothing in between.  Meditation seemed to offer a pathway to balance.  What I didn’t realize at the time was that the pathway was fraught with a multitude of personal battles.

My first obstacle in meditation was the physical aspect…the simple act of sitting still.  Who would have thought that sitting could be such an issue?  After all, I sit all the time!  I’ve spent a lifetime sitting!  The challenge comes from stillness and until I started this journey into meditation, I never realized how much I shift and move around when I sit.  I began my first meditation with one of the traditional postures, seated on the floor with my back upright and my legs crossed.  It didn’t take long before my spine started wearying from the strain of sitting straight.  Soon my neck started to go into spasms and my legs began to go to sleep.  After a few days of continued struggle, I gave up, opened my computer, and googled some solutions.   I made a trip across the city to a funky little meditation shop tucked in between the pastry shops and delis of Greektown.  The store was filled with cushions of all shapes and sizes, plus little stools, incense, crystals, and wide variety of buddha statues.  It was a meditation heaven.  After considering all my options and consulting with the store clerk who looked like he meditated a lot, I bought a grain-filled meditation cushion and two small beanbag shaped mini pillows to shove under my thighs.  The next morning while attempting to meditate once again, I found that comfort had been achieved, but that comfort had not completely sustained.  My shoulders and neck still ached.  I soon discovered that resting my hands on my thighs helped…for a bit.  I eventually found that having a pillow in my lap for my hands to rest upon worked most of the time, although sometimes the body aches got so intense that I simply gave up and lay down on my back for the rest of the session.  Somehow that felt like cheating.   And sometimes I fell asleep which really defeated the whole concept of meditation.

My next hurtle in meditation was in developing my ability to concentrate.  I’m not sure the word “concentration” is the best description.  Maybe the better word would be “focus”.  I was trying to develop the ability to concentrate or focus on the present.  Our minds spend so much time fussing over past events or worrying about what might happen in the future that we forget to actually be in the moment.  What’s that expression…”Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”.  It’s funny how when something interests you, like drawing a picture, you can lose yourself in that activity for hours, yet when you try to put that same concentration level into a seated rumination…nada.  I began to explore the different methods of honing my concentration, starting with focusing on a candle flame.  Within a few days, I soon abandoned that method.  My eyes watered constantly, and I could feel my face screwing up from the effort.  Developing new wrinkles on my forehead just didn’t seem like a worthwhile compromise.

Next, I tried to go for the mindful element of meditation by simply sitting and noticing the sounds and sensations of the world around me.  We had done exercises like this during our yoga teacher training; take a piece of chocolate and really spend some time examining it, smelling it, feeling the texture in your hand, feeling how it melted in your mouth, contemplating all the elements in the world that went into giving you this piece of chocolate, including the people who harvested the cocoa and store clerks who put the bars of chocolate on the shelves.  It’s pretty amazing when you really stop and think about everything that goes into the things that we use every day.  Another element of the mindful practice is one of non-judgement.  Notice something but don’t judge it as good or bad.   I sat on my meditation cushion, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath.  I noticed the chirping of the birds who were sitting in the flowering quince bush near my bedroom window.  I felt a slight warm breeze coming through my open window.  I noticed the hum of a lawn mower down the street and the soft whoosh of cars passing the houses.  I noticed the whiny voice of my neighbour Roger who creeps me out with his constant sexual innuendos.  Then I smelled the stench of burning plastic that wafted over from Roger’s yard, as he was once again illegally burning his garbage.  Roger’s grandchildren who lived with him, burst out of their back screen door, and began to loudly argue.  The screams of the three-year-old could travel blocks.  Roger yelled at the kids and his wife Rita added her voice to the cacophony with a barrage of non-stop pleas, curses, and admonishments.  I began to pray for a sudden cloudburst that would drive them all inside.  Maybe my neighbourhood wasn’t built for a non-judgemental mindful practice.

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