Why I teach mostly Donation based Community Yoga classes...

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Why I teach mostly Donation based Community Yoga classes...

There are a myriad of reasons but:

+I have been in debt for thousands and thousands of dollars because of my medical bills and know how desperately you can want to go to Yoga but also how daunting a $20+ price tag can feel.

+I have shown up to a class and been completely out of my depth because my body will not bend or flex the way everyone around me does.

+I have felt the healing power of kindness in friends and strangers who opened doorways, gifted me healing, and supported and nurtured me in my moment of need.

+I know how deeply healing Yoga can be when we are invited in as we are and allowed to be a part of the community regardless of our financial status or level of practice.

THIS is the kind of work I am called to…not just simply to teach Yoga; but to be a doorway. There are so many teachers out there who are so much more knowledgeable than I am and so many Yoga classes that can bring even deeper healing; and it is my hope that by teaching financially and physically accessible classes I can open the door to these other offerings and help my students find a way to bring Yoga more fully into their lives.


*It is important to note that a lot of these Community programs/teachers do have overhead; there is advertising, permits, equipment, office materials, paid employees etc. Which is why, if we are in the position to support and nurture our fellow Yogis who are in deep need; then as a part of our Yoga practice…it is worth seeing “Donation based” not as “cheap” Yoga; but rather a place where we can uplift and connect so that Yoga is accessible to ALL. Yoga is about Unity…and Donation based Community programs allow us to unite and either lean on our community when we are in need or support those within our community who are in need.

 
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So, for those of you who are wondering about other lower cost or Donation based programs available here in Ventura County; I have put together some resources for you.

1. Ventura Pop Up Yoga - https://www.venturapopupyoga.com/
Ventura Pop Up Yoga believes Yoga should be affordable and accessible. We want to empower everyone to find yoga in their daily lives; both on and off the mat.

2. The Space VTA - https://www.thespacevta.com/
Donation based Yoga and Community Classes

3. Yoga at Bell Arts Factory - https://bellartsfactory.org/classes/yoga/
$5 Yoga Classes 5 days a week

4. Arrowheart Yoga - http://www.arrowheartyoga.com/
$7 Community Classes available Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays

5. Jai Rhythm - http://jairhythm.com/
$9 Community Class: Sundays at 11:30 - Donation Meditation available daily

6. The Yoga Channel - https://theyogachannel.net/
$11 Community Classes Available

7. Ojai Yoga Shala - http://www.ojaiyogashala.com/
$10 Senior Yoga on Fridays

8. Vidya Yoga Community - https://www.gold.yoga/yogaonline
Amazing Online Yoga Community with Francesca Michelle (Ojai Yoga Therapist) for $9/month.

Are there any I missed? What are your favorite Community based and financially accessible classes here in Ventura County? Let me know in the comments below…

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When a loss isn't really a loss...

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A few weeks ago, my beloved cat Bailey died. I adopted her over seventeen years ago, when I was young and in need of a companion. If you haven’t read the story about how we found each other, you can read my blog on it here.
From the moment I saw her photo online, I was inexplicably drawn to this timid, beautiful cat. At the time, I couldn’t explain the intense magnetic energy that passed between us. It was the reason, that despite all logic, I adopted the most terrified and distant cat in the shelter. Now, I was not by any means a self assured teenager when I adopted Bailey, but despite the constant string of “Are you sure?” questioning that preceded her adoption; I was absolutely, without question, sure of this decision.
It wasn’t until a few days after her death that I would become fully aware of the reasons behind this undeniable connection that brought her into my life. The story I am about to tell, may lose some of you in what I like to call the “woo wooy-ness” ; but bear with me, because I’ve always been someone who enjoys a hearty mix of well defined science as well as inexplicable spirituality. And, even if you don’t buy into a word I say, I still think it is a beautiful story.
In the months leading up to Bailey’s death, I knew that her time was coming to an end. What we suspected was a rather aggressive nasal tumor, began to make breathing difficult for her I knew I didn’t want her to suffer needlessly. But being that she seemed relatively unphased by her predicament (aside from sneezing fits and nighttime wheezing), my heart struggled to know “when” the right time was. Every vet visit, she passed weight, eating, bodily functions, blood tests etc with flying colors and the staff always remarked how good she looked for a cat as old as she was. On one particular vet visit, a few days before she passed, I remember having a talk with her in the car, telling her that when she was ready to go, to just give me a sure sign and I would honor it. This is definitely one of those instances in which, you should be careful what you wish for.
A few short days later, I woke up to her bleeding copiously from her mouth and nose, and for the first time looking miserable. It was time. So, I made the phone call to the vet, who compassionately, came to our home that morning so that we didn’t have to transport her. Now, I have had my share of experiences with death; both natural and assisted. I have no squeamishness about the process, nor do I deny the grief that comes with it. I am comfortable enough with it that I accept it comfortably and allow myself the emotions as they arise. But, one thing that I can always rely on, is that moment when the heart fully stops and breathing ceases; the undeniable sensation that they have gone. The best I can describe it, is it’s an energetic shift of presence when a body goes from a “being” to merely being an “empty vessel”. As Bailey’s breath left her body and her heart ceased beating, I prepared myself for that shift…but, it never came. Bailey never left.
Her body was no longer living, but her energetic presence, her soul, her spirit, her essence (whatever you want to call it) stayed present, even amplified, around me. At the time, in shock, I assumed I was grieving so deeply that I was in denial; but something deep in my gut told me that I knew that wasn’t the right explanation. For days, I struggled to understand why I still felt her so close at hand. I grappled with the sheer bliss I experienced when remembering her face and her eyes. Her death didn’t feel like a loss at all…it felt like a blossoming. Her spirit, no longer encumbered by an aging physical body, had expanded and strengthened around me; and yet I felt utterly guilty at not grieving “correctly”, the way society stipulated I should.
I tried in desperation to untangle it in conversation and in writing. I remember my mom’s concern that I wasn’t acting in the way she had anticipated; given that I am normally such a deeply emotional person.
It was several “ah ha” moments later that led me to truly understand my experience. Firstly, I was listening to a podcast with Oprah and Byron Katie, in which Byron Katie speaks about her mother’s death. The way she explained the joy and serenity around her experience resonated with me so strongly and seemed to give me permission to see my experience as something natural rather than something wrong.
It was shortly after that, during a meditation that all the pieces fell into place. There was a reason all those years ago that I couldn’t just walk past Bailey. Despite all her flaws, I was meant to find her and we were meant to be together; because we already were. Bailey has been with me since the beginning. The years she spent with me as a pet, were merely a more tangible experience for us to get to know one another better. We spent those many years connecting more deeply and coming to understand one another more fully. We fine tuned our communication and our trust. The day that Bailey died, she didn’t leave, like the other souls of animals before, because her place was always meant to be with me. She simply took up her post in my legion of animal guides once again, this time, in the place of highest regard and honor.
And even now, around the house, I notice signs of her energy around. Our other cat Toby (whom she had little patience for) has started to explore my bedroom again (long terrified of her wrath, as this was “her” space); however, while he will sit in the window sill or sleep on the comforter, he actively avoids walking or sitting on my pillows, the one space Bailey always occupied. I have yet to discover anything that could coax him to invade this sacred place. He has also suddenly taken up the mantle of crawling onto my chest when I am lying on the couch; something Bailey did with such love and tenderness; but never something he had any interest in. It was the one physical connection I knew I was going to miss most when Bailey passed, and it is the one new behavior Toby started exhibiting.
In the time since her death, all of these things began to come to clarity and I felt it so deeply within me I couldn’t deny that something powerful and beautiful had transpired; but there was still this tiny nagging feeling that I was just telling myself comforting stories. Then I got the phone call that affirmed my intuition.
A few days ago, a family member had gone to a reading with a Medium and had called afterwards to share that Bailey was the first entity to come through into the conversation. She very clearly explained that she would always be with me and was leading my menagerie of animal guides (I haven’t written about them yet, but let’s just say I have a zoo full). She was known as a “nurse” cat, helping me in my healing journey and supporting me every step of the way. She confirmed everything that I had felt in my heart, down to why Toby honored her sacred space (because she was still bossing him around…)
Now, I have always had a very strong intuition. It is part of the reason I call myself an Intuitive Reiki Practitioner; because I am guided by the energy I feel and the deep knowing in my soul. However, I have always been afraid of really stepping into it and embracing my own power in this area. Little by little, over the years, I have had experiences that have confirmed the need to follow these whisperings; from near misses with car accidents, to sensations of when friends or family members are hiding pain, to dreams about my life’s path, and being able to pick out individual people’s emotions in a crowded room. But, it wasn’t until Bailey’s passing that I began to really get comfortable with this and step more fully into my intuition, accepting it as a part of who I am.
Bailey has given me one of the most precious gifts; the gift of faith. Faith in myself, faith in oneness and connection, and faith in living my truth, even when it is strange or unexplainable. So yes, A few weeks ago my beloved cat died; but in truth, it was merely a body that died. Bailey lives on and she is with me every moment and it is exquisitely beautiful.

 
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What is Reiki?

Photo by  Erin Cox

Photo by Erin Cox

What is Reiki?
Reiki, as defined by Google Dictionary is, “a healing technique based on the principle that the therapist can channel energy into the patient by means of touch, to activate the natural healing processes of the patient's body and restore physical and emotional well-being.” It is a technique that was developed in the 1920’s by a man named Mikao Usui and passed down through generations from Master to student through a series of “attunements”. But, the deeper meaning of Reiki is something I have a harder time explaining. This is in part because Reiki is something that is experienced in a completely unique way by every individual practitioner and client.

I was first introduced to the healing art of Reiki at the age of fifteen. Struggling with depression and anxiety, my mom began to explore adjunct therapies to support the ongoing psychotherapy and antidepressants. Although, at the time, I wasn’t fully open to the idea of energy actually being able to help me, there was something immensely relaxing and calming about lying on that table for a half hour and allowing myself to just “let go'“. However, it would be a further eighteen years before I was ready to dive into a truly immersive study of Reiki energy and energetic healing.
Around the age of twenty three, I was approached by a woman working the counter of our town’s local metaphysical shop, who quietly learned over and looked deep into my eyes and said with a voice filled with love and the deepest of conviction, “You are a healer my dear and you already know that. You just need to trust yourself. You have a gift.” That was it. No further explanation or guidance; just quite simply this is who you are and you know it, now go for it.
I entertained the idea briefly, reading some books, attending workshops and receiving sporadic Reiki sessions with various practitioners; but still there was something that held me back. I didn’t quite trust myself yet.
So, instead I put it in the back of my mind and I focused on my next great milestone; becoming a mother. I gave birth to my first child at age twenty four and from that moment on, I was fully consumed by the work of raising this little human being; however there wasn’t a week that went by that we didn’t somehow find ourselves randomly stopping by that same little metaphysical shop to just wander about for an hour or so. I had no explanation for it, but I just kept going back to meander through the shelves of crystals, incense, books on spirituality and tarot cards. The women who worked the counter often talked about energy work and I caught myself eavesdropping in on their discussions with fascination.
Fast forward nearly nine years later; I was now the mother of two children, homeschooling one of them and up to my elbows in grocery lists, house cleaning, and taking care of a house full of little humans and a menagerie of rescue animals. I had begun to do a lot of volunteer work with animals and after a particularly amusing rescue of a wayward rooster who had been dumped at a local park, I connected with a woman who had one of the most fascinating rescue farms I’ve ever seen. Not long after our Rooster rescue, she posted online about an event called “Reiki at the Ranch”….and I just couldn’t pass it by. I wanted so badly to participate, that I instantly emailed the woman coordinating the event and asked what the qualifications were to attend. When she told me that it was intended for practitioners and you needed at least a Reiki One attunement, I realized that I would do just about anything to get it. So, I asked her when was the soonest I could get an attunement.
To make a long story short, that particular Reiki at the Ranch event ended up having to be cancelled, but still I decided to pursue the attunement and just see what it was all about. I mean, I was familiar with the experience as a client, but I had never really understood how one actually began to practice it. And that folks, is where they say, “and the rest was history”. From the moment I stepped foot into that first attunement, I felt like I was finally coming home. All those years later, that woman’s words echoed in my ear “You were meant to do this”.
As I have progressed through my training (side note: I am not fond of that word “training”…as it feels more like a blossoming and a clarifying of what already existed) the sense of settling into myself has only become stronger. Even though the process hasn’t always been pleasant, there has never been a sense of uncertainty that this is a practice I am meant to partake in. I have felt everything from warming comfort to bliss to emotional overwhelm, to actual physical nausea and dizziness as I have dug down into the depths of this work and it has all served a purpose.
Today, I sit here writing this, a certified Reiki Master, knowing that this journey has only just begun. I am no special being. I have no particularly special gifts. I just know that for the first time in my life, I am following the call of my soul. There are details about the purpose and the exact direction that I am still working on clarifying; but for now, I know that I am on the right path. Somehow, in some way, Reiki is a part of my story.
And here is the most beautiful part of all this…Reiki is available to all of us. Reiki energy is and always has been there. It was there when I was fifteen, and it was there long before that. Someone wise once told me, it’s not that we are given special talents or “powers” but rather it is like we are all swimming in the ocean and when we open our eyes underwater, we can see the general shapes and colors of the reef around us; but through attunements and trainings and self exploration, it is like we are putting on our goggles. Suddenly the universe becomes clearer and we can discern the details of the coral, the subtle hues of the fish, and the shadows and light reflecting off the shells and stones. For me, my Reiki journey has felt exactly like this. I have always known this was right here in front of me, but the day I decided to truly put on my goggles; the energy around me crystallized into a more tangible experience, my connection to Spirit (Source, God, The Universe…whatever you term it) magnified, and my experience of everything around me (both physical and metaphysical) deepened and became infinitely richer.

So, as the spring emerges and the weather warms, I encourage you to reach out if you have ever been curious about or interested in a Reiki session, for yourself, your children, your animals, or a friend or family member. I will have many opportunities to share, both in private sessions and community based events and classes and I would be honored to work with you. Let’s put on our goggles together and go swimming; there is infinite beauty to behold.

 
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Becoming the snake...

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As the year comes to a close, I realize that 2018 has been a year of immense growth and change.  I am peeling back layers upon layers, rewriting old scripts, and shaking off the dust of expectation to finally get a clear view of this life of mine.
                I’m sure we all love a good transformation story, one that is rife with struggle and self-discovery that blossoms into enlightenment and life altering growth.  But, the reality is, for all of us, our stories are always unfolding in a continuous pendulum of struggle and synthesis; and that is exactly where I land this year.  I am in this process, completely.  I am not the butterfly, neatly emerged from her cocoon ready to alight onto her newly formed wings, beautifully transformed and ethereal.  I am the snake that painstakingly squeezes from its own skin allowing more room to grow; emerging almost exactly as it was before yet more brilliantly saturated in renewed color.  Also, completely aware that shedding is a part of its life process and will come again when the time is right. 
                In this year alone, I accomplished so many outward manifestations of growth; from an Animal Therapy Professional Certification, to Yoga Teacher training, to finally reaching my Reiki Master level attunement; but I had no idea going into it, the ways in which it would alter my life path and open an entirely new path to walk and new struggles to wrestle with.  I told myself that I was collecting papers that proved my worthiness to share my knowledge, my love, and my support in helping other’s heal.  Looking back now, it was such a surface level and naïve understanding of what I was actually doing.  See, I thought I NEEDED those papers to prove my soul purpose, my calling.  And, in some sense, those papers do help legitimize me in areas, like liability insurance, potential collaborators, and business endeavors; but in no way did any of those certifications change anything about what it is that I am actually being called to do and the gifts I already have within me. 
                I have been a healing practitioner my entire life.  My biggest hurdle has never been the certifications or trainings; it has been my belief that I am not worthy of this calling.  I am not enough. 
This year has not been about legitimizing myself to the world around me, it has actually been about uncovering the patterns and thoughts that I have used to delegitimize this work within myself.  I began to really see the excuses I made about “having enough time” or “whether I was skilled enough” or “if anyone actually wanted my help”.  But, when I look at my life, my most vivid memories of childhood are those in which I was healing, compassionate, imaginative, and magical.  Years later, it was me who connected with the deep devastating pain in my teen years and found the inner strength to work on my own wounding.  Even in the midst of “living up to society’s expectations” in my early adulthood I tried to find acceptable ways to bring compassion and love to those around me.  But, because I was operating from a place of turbidity; my worthiness got tangled into the process and my methods became physically and emotionally exhausting. 

                This year has been about clearing away the distractions, untangling “Me” from the outer experience, and bringing back clarity to my purpose, building a solid foundation of self-worth from within, and getting re-acquainted with my gifts; because I am here for a purpose.  Whether my purpose is simply to raise two incredible children who may one day change the world, or I am myself am intended to have some greater impact in the world or I am just here to temper the darkness and disconnect for a small corner of the world for a little while; so be it.  But, I now more intimately know the tools I have and how to use them.  I know my worth and sense of being is not attached or entangled with the outcome of the work I do.  I am simply here to follow the calling of my soul with love, compassion and wholeheartedness.  

                I have released an old metaphorical layer of skin and I feel the growth, I feel the freshness and freedom of lifting myself free of this particular shed; but I am still very much myself, much as the snake never ceases to be the snake; I am still who I have always been and that is exactly who I need to be.  There will be more growth and release to come and I am ready to embrace it when it gets here.  But, as for this particular leg of the journey, I am ready to welcome 2019 with gratitude, peace, and a sense of deep reconnection.

 

 
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Healing is not Linear...

 
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               There is a saying that, ”Healing is not linear” and I have always believed the truth in this.  There is no straight and narrow path to getting better; however, it seems like this statement needs a slight amendment. “Healing is not linear and it doesn’t always feel good.” 
                This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to take my second Yoga in the Wild retreat with VentureWell Yoga; and while the trip started off in much the same way as the one prior, with hiking, yoga, camaraderie and adventure, there was a distinct point at which the trip turned from a physical journey into an emotional one for me.   
                It was Saturday afternoon and we were scheduled for a one hour sun salutation practice before heading to a sunset meditation.  I unrolled my mat and prepared for the standard sequence of breath and movement that would inevitably leave me in a post practice bliss most notably arrived at during Savasana.  That moment of bliss never came.  As we warmed up our bodies and began the repetition of mountain poses, forward folds, planks, chaturangas, and downward dogs; I began to lose myself in my breath and my movement.  After years of practice, I have become accustomed to matching breath with movement and clearing my mind of residual chatter as I do so, but never before have I been so wholly consumed by the steady inhalation and exhalation of my lungs.  It was as if I completely detached from everything and for those few moments simply became the movement and the breath itself.  I did not have to think about the cues, I didn’t worry about the bodies around me, and I stopped being aware of the distraction of light and sound and temperature.  I adjusted my form without thought, I modified without question or ego, and I moved completely in the present moment. 
                As the practice wound down and I snapped back into the reality of the world around me, I was overwhelmed.  Every sound felt foreign, every sensation was uncomfortable, and during Savasana, I began to feel the tears well up inside me as my brain kept repeating the phrase, “You don’t belong anywhere”.  It took everything I had to roll up my mat at the end of the class and retreat to my tent before bursting into silent tears.  My anxiety kicked in as I tried to pull myself together in time to put on a good face and partake in the next activity.  But, the more I pulled on my hiking shoes and packed my day pack, the harder it became; so instead I decided to stop and do something completely out of character for me, I decided to stay at camp. 
                After everyone had left, I cooked a quick dinner and retreated once again to my tent to process what the hell just happened; and as much I would love to say that I sat in silent mediation for a few hours and was suddenly drawn into understanding and peace, nothing even remotely close to that happened.  Mostly, I cried and sat in confusion.  Why did I suddenly feel completely disconnected from everything?  Why did simple conversations feel excruciating?  Why did the wonder of the natural beauty around me suddenly seem veiled and foggy?  I wrote in my journal that I felt much like a visitor to a foreign land, unable to speak the language, unsure of local customs, and so utterly confused and overwhelmed by my surroundings; and try as I might, there was simply no making sense of it at any point that evening. 
                The following morning, I woke up three minutes before my alarm was set to go off and decided to try participating in the sunrise yoga class.  Sunrises have always held a particularly special place of healing in my heart, and I figured if anything could help reconnect me to the universe, a sunrise could do it; but as if part of some continued cosmic challenge, the fog had rolled in and the sunrise was completely obstructed.  So, rather than participate in another asana practice, I choose instead to spend some time alone again, wandering the cliffs and listening to the morning silence.  As my stomach began to rumble and I realized that my physical body was demanding some attention as well, I started the trek back to camp.  My head was swirling with the frustration of feeling as if someone had come along and clipped the wires that held me plugged into the universe.  I was completely disconnected, and I couldn’t see how I was supposed to “plug back in”. 
                I decided to try grounding.  It had always been a source of energy and strength in the past, so why not now?  Off came the shoes and I proceeded to walk the second half of the trail back to camp barefoot, naked feet against the earth.  Grounding did work, for a time.  I was able to enjoy breakfast and some lovely conversations throughout the early part of the day, but as the hours passed, I slipped back into disconnect.  By the time we boarded the boat for the return trip home, I felt as if I wanted to hide away in the most secluded dark corner of the world, alone and silent, because I truly didn’t belong anywhere. 
                It has now been several days since that fateful yoga class and in that time, I spent a lot of time railing against the frustration of feeling lonely and disconnected.  But, once I was home in a familiar space, I began slowly to surrender to these difficult emotions.  I wandered my backyard allowing the heaviness to hang over me without fighting it or sinking into it.  I simply acknowledged the feeling and just sat quietly with it, observing.  It is not an easy thing to do, to sit with difficulty without judgement and without trying to “fix” it; but it worked. 
                The more I sat with it, the more I began to actually piece together what it was that my spirit was trying to tell me.  In the months leading up to this retreat, I had been navigating some intense work with my goals, my work, my purpose, and my place in the world.  I had also be delving into work and education around social justice issues and broadening my awareness of world issues.  I had taken on so much information that I had lost a vital connection to who I am at my most base level; the “me” that is.  During that particular yoga class, I had suddenly reconnected to that core essence of who I am, completely and fully.  I embodied myself as I am without judgement or outer influence; and the power of it scared the ever living shit out of me…so much so, that I spent the next three days trying to deny that I had just experienced what I had experienced.  I spent three days vehemently denying that my connection to the universe and the world around me comes from within me (and the enormous power and potential within me).  In denial, I repetitively attempted to find the source of connection outside myself.  I kept trying to “plug back in” to the universe, when the outlet itself was inside me all along.  I kept repeating the damaging phrase, “I don’t belong anywhere” without realizing it was because I “belong everywhere and to everything”.

                 I suppose this is what I mean when I say that “Healing is not linear, and doesn’t always feel good.”  The healing I did on this retreat was absolutely and undeniably needed (likely long before it actually happened), however, the road through it was uncomfortable and at times painful.  The ups and downs as I navigated the winding journey were all a part of a meaningful process, but it really didn’t make them any more pleasant. 
                As I sit here writing this, I feel reconnected again.  It wasn’t through sunsets, or bare feet, or even lengthy conversation; but rather through a long and uncomfortable silent refocusing that took place entirely within me.  I was the teacher, the student, and the observer; and while this is no means the end of my healing journey, it is certainly a notable moment of clarity along the path. 

I also have to take this final moment to extend my gratitude to Jessy, Erin, and Jen of VentureWell Yoga for creating spaces like this for adventure, healing, and exploration.  You three are beautiful and empowering examples of love, light and soul work. 

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Being a Beginner...

 
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                Being a beginner can be a scary thing.  You have no idea what you’re doing, you will very likely make many mistakes, and it requires putting yourself into a vulnerable position of “not knowing”; but being a beginner can also be one of the most beautiful and freeing experiences as well.

                I love being a beginner.  Sure, it scares me to my core, but it is also incredibly empowering.  Think about it, when you are a beginner, there are no expectations to perform.  There are no assumptions of knowledge or skill level.  It is the one time you can show up as you are and just experience whatever it is in its purest form; and if you allow yourself to release the anxiety and fear of failure, it is the one time when you can immerse yourself into learning in such a pure and untainted way that only becomes more difficult as you acquire higher levels of skill and understanding. 

                The first time I went to a yoga class, I was shaky, unsteady and about as bendy as an oak tree.  The first time I had to halter a horse, I am pretty sure it took me a full five minutes to stop getting tangled in the rope.  The first time I sang in a group, my voice was wobbly and my palms were sweaty.  The first time I went to a meditation seminar, I kept cracking my eyes to see if anyone else was peeking.  Every single first experience is a messy collage of success and failure; but every single time I was inspired.  (Or in a few instances, inspired to find another activity or interest). 

                Learning is a powerful medium for overcoming fear, exploring our body’s limits, expanding our knowledge and wisdom, and connecting with the world around us.  When we are able to put aside the need to be “proficient” from the very beginning and get out of our own way, we can find inspiration and satisfaction in the struggle.  The amount of times I fell on my face when I was learning to do crow pose was astounding, but every time I tried, I got a little bit closer.  (And, I won’t lie…it endlessly amused me as I toppled and tumbled)  We live in a world that values expert proficiency, perfect mastery, and inspiring exceptionalism; but there is something to be said for the bravery and beauty in early imperfection and first attempts. 

                Being a beginner also means that the moment we do make those breakthroughs, there is an ecstatic rush of accomplishment.  Even little triumphs carry great weight because they are part of what builds that foundation of experience.  And those feelings of joy and accomplishment will stay with us as we progress.  They are often the moments we reflect back on when we need that extra motivation for the next level of skill; because there is no feeling like that first time we successfully overcame a new challenge. 

                One of the things that has always inspired me to share new experiences and activities with people is that I have derived such joy from being a beginner.   I still get nervous jumping into things headfirst, but the more times I do it, the more I realize that there is nothing but opportunity!  So, I encourage you to stop today and take a moment to look around and see where you can explore being a beginner again.  What new skill or knowledge set can you learn?  How can you break down those walls of fear and embrace being a beginner?  How can you get in touch with the ecstasy of learning?

Homework for this week…try something new!  Whether it is in a class or in the privacy of your own home, just try something new and try to embrace the wobbles, the shakes, the confusion and the chaos.  This week, BE A BEGINNER!

 
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EAGALA Case

I came across this video of an EAGALA trainer discussing a very interesting case; while doing an assignment for my Equine Assisted Therapy class, and it is just too powerful not to share.
For anyone who has experienced work with equines in therapeutic settings, there is likely little surprise that Twister was so incredibly attuned to what was going on under the surface.  I have myself witnessed this kind of awareness and understanding first hand in mock sessions and I have also been "called out" by horses on several occasions when I am feeling things under the surface that I am not being open about, most notably when I am feeling anxious or unsure of myself. 
I am sharing this video here as a follow up to my last blog post and to further illustrate just how incredible Equine Assisted Mental Health Services truly are. 

**Trigger Warning: a discussion of abuse does take place, please watch mindfully**

If you are interested in reading more case studies, you can purchase EAGALA's book "Transforming Therapy through Horses"

Elevating through Equus

"Elevation through Equus"

Partnering with horses through learning experiences and therapies to heal and grow as human beings.

 
Elevation through Equus
 


          Often when we are lost or struggling, we turn to fellow humans to help us heal and find our way; but what if there was another species who had a particular set of skills able to open our hearts and our minds and soothe our worries and fears?  What if there was a creature who could bring us peace while simultaneously challenging our beliefs about ourselves and the world around us?  What if this same creature could help us through physical ailments and limitations?  There is indeed such an animal and it has been evolving by our side from as far back as 4,000 B.C.  This majestic creature is the Equus caballus; otherwise known as the horse. 

          Horses have long held a powerful position in our evolution as a means of transport, tools of war, rural livestock, a farm hand and most recently as companions and pets.  It was in the early 1960’s that horses were first viewed as a valuable support system for physical therapy patients in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria; and it only took a further ten years or so for these theories and practices to begin to take hold in the United States.  Although it wouldn’t be until the 1990’s that people actually began experimenting with the use of equines in mental and emotional healing; all modalities of Equine Assisted/Facilitated Activities and Therapies have been growing exponentially ever since.   

          When it comes to working with horses, there are two main branches that have developed over the last fifty eight years; the first focuses on the improvement of physical wellbeing and neuromotor function and the second focuses on psycho-social and mental health.  Hippotherapy and Therapeutic Riding generally fall under the umbrella of physical and neuromotor function; whereas Equine Assisted/Facilitated Psychotherapy and Equine Assisted/Facilitated Learning fall under the psycho-social and mental health category. 

 
The Ranch
 

         I was first introduced to the use of equines in various activities through my volunteer work with The Ranch.  As founder Kate Kohagen says of her work with children in the foster system, “…horses help me begin to rebuild the emotional connection and trust with adults…as a result of our horses providing contact comfort and animal handling, our participants display numerous positive emotional, cognitive, and physical outcomes.”  I remember observing some of those early visits when The Ranch was located here in Southern California.  I would watch as quiet, closed off little faces opened and lit up with wonder, curiosity and joy as they were nuzzled by miniature horses and full sized mares alike.  I also had the pleasure of teaching an “Art Among the Animals” class that utilized art as a medium to connect with these animals on a deeper level.  Every class was a wondrous discovery of new perspectives and connections. 

          It was this early work with The Ranch that first interested me in the effects of the Human-Animal Bond.  When the organization relocated to Northern California, I began a search for new ways to build upon the work I had been introduced to; and so I began volunteering with Whitehorse Wellness Center and Reins of H.O.P.E. in Ojai and began to explore the incredible world of therapeutic riding and Equine Assisted/Facilitated Therapy.  I also began participating in local Equine Facilitated Learning events with people like Andrea Gaines.  Through my work and experiences with these programs, I have not only witnessed this powerful healing work in person, but also have experienced life changing healing of my own. 

    

 
Equine Facilitated Learning
 

            Equine Assisted/Facilitated Therapies and Equine Assisted/Facilitated Learning are powerful adjuncts to traditional therapies and self-exploration, but can also stand alone in their own right. (As you might notice, I have chosen to note the terms “assisted” and “facilitated” separately because while seemingly very similar, they do in fact represent two very different experiences. An “assisted” activity is one in which the horse serves in a supportive, passive way and allows the human teacher or therapist to take the lead.  A “facilitated” activity on the other hand is when the teacher or therapist steps back and allows the horse to guide the session.  Both are incredibly powerful forms of therapeutic and learning experiences; but having this distinction allows clients to find a program that suites their own personal needs and comfort levels.)

           Horses are large, powerful, prey animals who live in hierarchical herd dynamics and who have been in close proximity to humans for many thousands of years.  These qualities give horses a unique way of interacting and connecting with humans.  First and foremost their sheer size alone makes them fascinating, frightening and powerful simultaneously; but because they are still prey animals their attentiveness and awareness to the world around them is far keener than our own.  Horses can sense the most subtle changes in behavior, heart rate, scent, and emotion; that we as humans may not even be aware of.

 
Whitehorse Wellness Center
 

       Horses are also incredibly expressive in their facial movements, body movements and posturing and as Lisa, Founder of Whitehorse Wellness Center noted, “The biggest difference is that there is no verbal language to hide behind.”  I bet if you asked even the most novice of horsemen, they could all give you a good sense of what pinned ears and bared teeth mean even without words!  These qualities of awareness and wordless expression allow horses to mirror us in a very clear way; often putting on display the emotions or inner workings that we ourselves might not even realize we are holding on to.  Horses also live in the moment and are incredibly forgiving.  As Equine Specialist Alia Shahi of Reins of H.O.P.E. shared with me, “We always say, the way you show up in the arena is the way you are showing up in life, recovery, relationships etc.” So, as clients move through emotional states and experiences, the horses continue with them without holding judgement.  It is a quality we often find ourselves unable to experience among our fellow human beings. Andrea Gaines adds that, “Equine Experiences help individuals explore nonverbal communication, their intuitive abilities and becoming aware of how their energy can create connection.”   Through guided activities and/or meaningful interactions with the horses in an Equine Assisted/Facilitated Learning or Equine Assisted/Facilitated Therapy program, people are able to bring awareness to internal blocks or challenges and work out the means to move past them or to heal from them. 

 
Reins of Hope
 

          Currently, I am studying to earn my Therapy Animal Professional’s certification and continuing to explore all areas of the Human-Animal Bond; but the volunteer work and experiences I have had over the past four years have only solidified my belief that the Human-Animal Bond and more specifically the Human-Horse bond is an undeniably powerful and profound one.  It is a bond that when cultivated and embraced is capable of incredible healing and growth; and while the field of Equine Assisted/Facilitated activities is still very much in its early days, every year, new scientific studies are being released corroborating its many physical, mental and emotional benefits.

          If you or a loved one are struggling with life changes, processing trauma, or just looking to enrich your life, please consider looking into Equine Assisted/Facilitated Activities.  From veterans, to at-risk youth, from cancer survivors, to children with Autism, and everyone in between, Ojai is blessed to have a plethora of options in the Equine learning and healing field.  I have provided links below to some valuable resources if you’d like to learn more.

 
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Reins of H.O.P.E. (EAGALA Certified Equine Therapy Program)

Whitehorse Wellness Center (PATH Certified Therapeutic Riding Program)

Andrea Gaines (Equine Facilitated Learning groups)

EAGALA (Certifying Organization for ground work therapy programs)

PATH International (Certifying Organization for mounted therapy programs)

Walking the Way of the Horse, by Leif Hallberg (An excellent book about the history, science, application and experience of Equine Facilitated Mental Health and Educational Services)

 

Teachers, Healers and Guides: Part Two

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Frankie

Teachers, Healers, & Guides: Part Two

               

               The day I met Frankie I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him.  I had long bought into the ideas of donkeys being stubborn and prone to outbursts of aggression and up to that point I had no reason to believe otherwise.  But, Frankie was different.  From the moment I laid eyes on him, there was a softness about him.  It took me a long while to put my generalized “donkey bias” aside and see him exactly as he was, but I knew from that first moment that there was something special about him

                Frankie was a rescued donkey at one of our local animal sanctuaries, The Ranch (now located in Placerville, CA).  He had been abandoned in a field with his mother and had minimal human experience before being taken in by Kate and her organization.  But, with gentle love and consistency Frankie began to blossom.

                I can’t imagine what he must have felt the first few times he encountered me.  I was a complex mixture of anxiety and fascination.  He was such a beautiful and wondrous creature, but the back of my mind was constantly replaying repeated imaginings of donkeys kicking, biting, and lashing out.  Frankie never seemed to mind though.  He was unwaveringly patient with me and always regarded me with a quiet inquisitiveness, as if he was just waiting for me to figure out on my own just what a gentle and loving soul he was.

                Because donkeys are inherently different than horses, much of the knowledge and understanding that I carried from growing up around horses was of little use in really comprehending his behavior and instinctive nature.  Wild donkeys are generally solitary equines who live in dry arid regions, whereas horses find themselves in harem style hierarchies (or bachelor groupings) on more lush and grassy terrains.  This major distinction can account for many of key differences in behavior we see between horses and donkeys.  Due to their solitary existence, donkeys are more territorial and are more prone than horses to fight rather than to flee when they feel threatened.  They are also more likely to freeze and survey their surroundings when they are unsure (which can be misconstrued by humans as “stubbornness”) and this can lead to anxious behavior towards enclosed spaces, such as trailers, due to an instinct to avoid being "trapped".  Donkeys are also regarded as faster learners because they rely on their own abilities to maintain their safety and well being rather than that of a herd; and this can lead to cleverly discovering ways in which to avoid situations they deem unpleasant or negative. 

                 Had I known and truly understood all of this when I first met Frankie, the evolution of our relationship might have looked different, but likely it would have been far less meaningful.  Frankie was an excellent teacher in overcoming fear and releasing bias.  Frankie was a gentle guide in the art of slowly building confidence and trust.  Frankie was also a master at knowing when to lean in and when to back off. 

                There were days when he barely looked at me.  Whether I was frustrated or not really paying attention to his signals in the way that he deserved; Frankie would refuse to give me the time of day unless I was fully present.  However, on the days when I was open or ready for connection, he would approach the fence without fail and rest his head against my hand waiting for his beloved “behind the ears” scratches.  Beyond that though, for whatever reason, there was always one emotion that Frankie seemed to understand without fail.  That emotion was sadness.

                During the time I spent working with The Ranch, when they were located in Southern California, there were definitely some waves of deep sadness.  I was juggling the newness of becoming a mother of two, exploring the complex world of homeschooling and fighting a seemingly endless battle with chronic illness.  In general my life was wonderful, but there were definitely those days when the weight of trying to keep up with everything was heavy on my heart.  Those were the days that Frankie would saunter up to me and rest his head against my side and I could wrap my arms around him and hug him close.  I would scratch behind his ears and he would lean in, warm and compassionate.  As I would move about the pen trying to clean, he would follow me, gently bumping up against me for more scratches.  There have been studies done that suggest that humans may excrete certain scents or have certain minute physical changes related to our emotional states, that equines are able to detect.  Whether you believe he was responding to subtle changes in my chemical or physical expression or he was simply aware of an energetic shift of some kind; there was no doubt in my mind that Frankie knew the "sad days" and had his own personal protocol for interacting with me during them.  I never once walked away from him on those days feeling quite as weighted down as I did when I first walked in. 

                Over the few years we had together, I began to understand his body language more deeply and learn how to react (or not react) to build trust between us.  I started reading about donkeys in my free time; their evolution and behavior and their healthcare and needs.  I grew to love a species that I had timidly avoided most of my life, thanks to misunderstanding and ignorance.  Frankie helped build a bridge and also helped open me up to learning more deeply about all species of domestic animals.  I was keen to continue to expand my knowledge base and to avoid missing any more opportunities to connect with other animals.   

                Frankie is still a part of The Ranch family, but now is happily traipsing about five beautiful acres at their facility in Northern California. He has a new jenny as a companion and a whole herd of equine friends.  I miss him all the time, but whenever we get a chance to visit, I always have my hands ready for good solid ear scratches and plenty of love to shower over him.  I have never yet met a donkey quite like him, but thanks to my experience, I am now open and excited whenever I get the chance to spend time with one of these amazing creatures.  Fear has been replaced with understanding and hesitancy with joyful anticipation and it is all thanks to a donkey named Frankie. 

If you’d like to learn more about Frankie and The Ranch and all the incredible work they do, please visit their website: AtTheRanch.org
 

Or Follow them on Social Media:

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Teachers, Healers and Guides:
Part One

Bailey

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There hasn't been a time in my life where animals haven't played a significant role in my memories, my growth and my education.  While I could likely fill a book with pages upon pages of my animal companions and connections, there are those few that hold a place of distinct honor along the journey of my life.  This week, I wanted to start sharing a few of those stories; and while this handful of incredible creatures nowhere near fill the comprehensive list of all influential animals in my life, these specific animals often guided me through some kind of important and enlightening experience.  I will continue to post new animal stories throughout the coming weeks, to share the lessons and connections that have so deeply touched me over the years.

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    In any discussion about animals, I must start first and foremost with my beloved 17 year old cat, Bailey.  Bailey was my very first shelter rescue.  While I had, throughout my childhood, taken a shining to caring for the numerous barn cats that romped around our property growing up, Bailey was the first animal that I made a conscious decision to rescue.  It was during a particularly rough patch in my teen years that my parents agreed to a passionate plea for an animal of my very own.  Being that it was the advent of internet research, I excitedly signed on to the local shelter's website and scrolled the pages of available cats.  I still vividly recall my heart jumping at the grainy photo of a beautiful long haired female named Bailey. 
It was just a few days later we trekked off to the shelter to see her in person.  I walked into the communal cat room and excitedly sought out her speckled grey coat and bushy tail; and she was there alright...tucked as far back into the darkest quietest corner she could possibly squeeze herself into.  She was tense with terror and attempting in every sense to become as invisible as possible. 

    I suppose this reaction might turn off most teenagers on the hunt for a cuddly companion.  Yet there was something about seeing this seemingly broken feline cowering in the corner that spoke to me; another being who at that moment felt pretty broken herself.  Bailey's body posture screamed with fear but her eyes, those enormous almond shaped discs of vibrant green speckled with brown, held nothing but a gentle plea to be loved.  It wasn't until years later that I realized Bailey's distinctly green eyes with flecks of brown spots are a trait that I myself carry; we were a perfect match.

    The shelter staff and my mother both questioned me repeatedly.  "Are you sure you want this cat?"  They relayed her sad story of abandon and the subsequent year of rehabilitation it took to even get her into the cat room.  They reminded me that she might never overcome her anxiety and remain an extremely shy cat for the rest of her life.  I nodded and pressed on, "Yes, this cat."  She needed me and I needed her. 

    It took Bailey a full six months to venture from the safety of residing under my bed full time; another year to really begin to connect with me.  It took her a further five years before she would sit with my husband (who had been my boyfriend when I adopted her).  Nearly 10 years later, she still made herself scarce whenever anyone came into the house and many friends had no indication of my beloved feline companion other than the soft cat bed next to the couch and a litterbox in the corner.  It is only now, in her twilight years; after two human babies, three new dogs, a new cat, numerous moves, and the odd encounter with injured chickens or foster rabbits; that she has finally stopped racing for a dark corner at the slightest change in her environment.  Now, she is rather the queen of the house and sleeps where she pleases and runs off anyone who invades her personal space beyond her liking. 

    Through her journey in learning to trust me and know that I would love her unconditionally, Bailey taught me so much about patience, resilience, and what genuine trust looks like.  It did take her months to approach me, but once we bridged that divide, she became my greatest comfort in difficult times.  Bailey has this incredible sense for when I am in need of support.  She will crawl into my lap or up onto my chest, if I am lying down, and press her face against me as she purrs.  The day I suffered my first miscarriage, the day I was diagnosed with autoimmune disease, through the deaths of two of my grandparents, and with every small ache and pain; Bailey has been a constant fixture at my side.  She is one of the only animals I know who pays me little mind for the most part unless I am sad, sick, or have treats (she is a fierce treat hound!).  The young cat that couldn't melt far enough into the background turned out to be the most incredibly intuitive animal healer. 

    Bailey has taught me, that when it comes to animals in my family, I trust my gut, I don't discount the tricky cases or the quiet ones, and I always invest for the long haul.  She is the living embodiment of the power of feeling safe and being loved unconditionally. 

    As I write this, Bailey is curled up into a little ball on the arm of the couch, oblivious to the dogs and children parading around her.  At seventeen years of age, I know that our time together is limited, but I am still in awe of the miraculous way in which two lost souls found one another and healed each other through pure love and trust. 

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       When I set out to write this week’s blog, I had a whole outline prepared and images ready to go; but then I took part in a workshop and everything shifted.  I am absolutely compelled to share this experience, as it was a beautiful and also completely confounding event.                    This past Saturday I participated in  Venture Well’s  Psoas Release workshop led by the wonderful  Jessy Raspiller .  After the collective trauma of living through the Thomas Fire, I felt drawn to this workshop which was intended to “tap into and help release some of the built up pain we store”.  I signed up and prepared for a morning of emotional release and deep mind/body work.                  The reality of the situation turned out to be one that completely caught me off guard, in what initially appeared to be an entirely happy way, but as I dug in deeper and the work settled in I realized there was a much richer complexity to the entire experience.                    Jessy began the class with an overview of the psoas muscle, its function, and the many implications it has in our lives.  My favorite part of this explanation was the story of the gazelle, who when chased by the lion simply acts upon the fight or flight response; but if the gazelle eventually escapes to safety, it goes into a state of involuntary shaking known as Neurogenic tremors (innate to all mammals) to discharge the excess energy built up while literally running for its life.  We as humans also have this ability after responding to real or perceived threats, but somewhere along the way we have decided that we must suppress this incredibly valuable release.  In many societies the world over, shaking after a traumatic event is seen as a sign of weakness or frailty and so many humans have worked very hard to suppress this shaking response, much to their detriment.                    As the class progressed, Jessy led us through a slow progression of movements to work into that psoas muscle area and begin to access and tire that built up muscle tension.  By the end of the class, our bodies warmed and our muscles depleted, we began a specific exercise intended to cause involuntary shaking and release the built up energy from past traumas that had yet to be released.  As one might expect, we were adequately prepared for the potentiality of strong emotions, crying, a sense of overwhelm, and so on.  I had no idea I was about to experience something completely different.     …                     As I lay reclined on my back, with my knees gently spread wide and my feet pressed together, I began to focus on the words Jessy spoke as she led us through the exercise.  At first, I felt nothing; no tremors, no emotion, nada.  As my position changed and my movements adjusted with her directions, the tremors began, lightly at first and ceasing after about thirty to sixty seconds.  Then, my first intense tremor hit and while my legs seemingly turned to jelly and bounced around, my mind stayed relatively clear and focused.  My emotions remained steady, but the instant the tremors ceased, my body was washed over with a wave of warmth and an overwhelming sense of blissful calm and connection.  It was like slipping into the deepest moments of meditation while being flooded with the biggest dose of Oxytocin and reliving the happiest moments of my life all at once.                   Around me, I could hear tears and heavy breaths, and for a moment I began to wonder if I was doing this right.  I was caught completely off guard, but between the tremors and the waves of bliss, I honestly couldn’t contemplate the reasoning with much more than a passing query.                  When the class ended, I had to head out quickly to go on to another family event, but I carried a bit of guilt in my chest as I walked out the door.  All these women around me had experienced something profound, something deeply emotional; and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why my heart was dancing around on cloud nine and I had a hard time keeping the grin off my face.  I was high on Psoas Release and everyone around me had ridden a whole different ride.                   It wasn’t until later that night when I had some quiet moments to reflect on the day that I really began to question my reaction.  Was I doing something wrong?  Was I somehow broken?  Was I not releasing myself to the depth of the experience?  Did I put up subconscious barriers to avoid the pain?  Why was I so different?  It began to trouble me deeply that perhaps I hadn’t been ready for that kind of experience.  But, as I pondered this sense of “unworthiness” a single thought popped into my head.  I shake all the time.  Any time I have to address an uncomfortable situation; whenever someone delivers bad news, after a crisis situation; I always shake like a palm tree in a hurricane.  I honestly have no idea if I am any good at hiding it (I’ve never asked anyone), but no matter how hard I try…I shiver, I shake and I wiggle.  For some strange reason, I always thought that stress made me cold because all my life, I figured that those shivers were a reaction to temperature (which, for the record, may not be that strange as I am almost always much colder than anyone else around me).  I have vivid memories of many instances in which my body went into crisis mode and it was inevitably followed by shaking.  During the entirety of the class I never once made that connection.                  I am the gazelle in Jessy’s story.  Throughout the years of my life, that inherent need to release excess energy was always stronger than any desire to suppress it.  I think that might be part of the reason for my slightly varied experience.  Without even realizing it, I have been doing this work my entire life.  When my body went into the involuntary shake, my entire system keyed into the fact that this particular movement signals the end of trauma and all that was left to follow was a peaceful sense of joy that radiated from the releasing any last tidbits of “stickiness” leftover.  I was an expert in a field I never even knew existed.  My mind and my body have been stronger and more grounded than even I could imagine (and I live in here!); and the subsequent lesson was a deeper sense of trust and power in those “gut” feelings or those seemingly involuntary reactions that feel right but might not make total outward sense.  It was a powerful realization and it has stuck with me over the past few days as my inner dialogue shifts to accommodate this new sense of trust in myself.                   I went into this workshop with a goal and an expectation for the outcome and I came out realizing that once again, my body, my mind and my spirit know what’s up and the more I lean in and trust them as they are, the better I’ll be.  So, here’s to being mindful of our inner voices, our innate sense of self and our deep wisdom beneath the surface.      Much love and gratitude to  Jessy Raspiller ,  Ventura Pop Up Yoga , and  Venture Well  for providing an experience in which to explore these inner workings!  If you haven’t heard of these wonderful folks, please be sure to check them out; I have put links on all of their names for convenience. 

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Exploring what happens when the reaction I was expecting, wasn't the reaction I experienced and what that meant for my self awareness.

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