“Or this could be Hell.”

Awareness Ishvarapranidhana Living Yoga Meditation Yoga

I attended a yoga class 10-or-so-years ago that was themed around this line from the Eagles’ Hotel California:

“This could be Heaven or this could be Hell.”

The intention behind the theme was to emphasize the idea that we can influence our experience of things. An experience, in this case, a set of challenging asana (yoga postures), could be heaven or hell depending on how we respond to it.

Wisdom has a way of weaving itself through our lives, and I recently had this lesson come back to me in a powerful way. I was sitting in my meditation practice, and I was feeling strong urges to get things done. My mind kept wandering to things I wanted to get done, and physically, I felt like my body was a firework about to explode. Sitting still felt out of line with everything my body wanted to do in that moment.

About midway through my practice, the lyrics popped into my head:

“This could be Heaven or this could be Hell.”

And with that thought, my body softened and my mind settled. I wasn’t going to cut my practice short to try and get more things done, so I could either sit and agonize over not being able to do other things in this moment or I could meet myself where I had committed to be.

Recalling the song lyrics reminded me that there was choice in this moment. There are many things that I can’t control, but my thoughts are not one of those things. It was completely within my power to engage differently with this experience, and so I did.

I accepted that I wasn’t going anywhere until my practice was complete. And, in accepting where I was, I found significantly more ease and even some enjoyment in the moment. I reconnected with my commitment to the practice and the powerful change it has facilitated in my life. I remembered that – for better or for worse – I chose this.

But life can throw things at us that are much more challenging than yoga. Things we didn’t choose. Things no one would choose. Things that are hard and heartbreaking.

It is still worth considering that there is wisdom in reflecting upon how we respond to things, but perhaps it might be better to say something along the lines of:

“This could be [hard and heartbreaking] or this could be Hell.”

This experience could be a challenging one that pushes me beyond what I thought were my limits, or it could be a horrible catastrophe that I can’t see myself moving through. We are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. We can improve our ability to cope. The ego may not love the idea that we could make changes to bring more ease into our challenging experiences, but paradoxically, we tend to feel rather proud of ourselves when we do.

And then there was loss…

Awareness Svadhyaya


Empathy is popular these days. At least it is in my circles. It seems like something on how to develop empathy – in ourselves or in our children – crosses my path every few days.

One of the key messages I have taken from all this information about empathy is this: try not to respond to someone’s struggle with anything that starts with “at least”, because empathy rarely takes the form of pointing out the fortunate in someone’s misfortune.

I used to do this a lot. And sometimes I still have to make a conscious effort not to. Pointing out the “positive” comes so easily to me in those moments, but in doing so, I am missing something huge.

The interaction I am having is not about the experience of the person in front of me; it is about the emotions of the person in front of me. Brené Brown has spent the past sixteen years studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, and she writes:

Empathy doesn’t require that we have the exact same experiences as the person sharing their story with us … Empathy is connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or the circumstance.

If I focus on the story and the experience, I am missing the opportunity to support the person in front of me.

Shifting gears slightly, another piece I have taken from my explorations into empathy (and emotional intelligence, in general) is the expression: “Feel it to heal it.”

Some emotions are harder to feel: anger, sadness, grief, jealousy, and anxiety, to name a few. The idea behind the expression “feel it to heal it” is that we need to feel our challenging emotions to process them and move through them. If we ignore them or deny them, they stay with us.

I lost a friend recently. I am thinking about misfortune and challenging emotions because of this personal experience.

I’ve noticed how I have embodied the things I have been learning about. I didn’t try to tell a story of why it was okay. It’s not. It’s tragic and awful and heartbreaking. I didn’t try to numb or distract myself from feeling the pain of the loss. Well, full disclosure, I did some Netflix bingeing and I ate enough vegan spelt brownies to change the way my pants fit, but I mostly felt the depression, ache, and sadness. Some things are hard to feel 24/7.

Sitting with it has been new and different and hard.

I notice an absence of personalization. This experience is different too. I haven’t made it about me. I haven’t moved into a place of fear where I am worried that I will die or that my husband will die in a similar way.

So, here I am: feeling loss. To be honest, there is a part of me that keeps thinking, “So, what do I do now? If I am not putting a spin on the story, if I am not making it all about me, if I am not distracting myself, what do I do with this pain and sadness?”

I’m new to moving through emotions in this way, but my best guess is that I just keep feeling it. I practice patience and acceptance. I learn how to take better care of myself. Before this experience, my sense of “feel it to heal it” was that it was a faster process. I had a sense that acknowledging emotions made them go away, but I’m thinking of the other expression: “name it to tame it.” Acknowledgement can take the edge off, but it doesn’t resolve deep emotion. I see now that processing challenging emotions is more of an allowing and an unfolding.

As we allow ourselves to feel our grief, it begins to integrate within us. It never goes away, but we learn, with time, to hold it with more ease.

Accepting Life’s Limitations

Awareness Living Yoga Pain Relief Svadhyaya

When people are living with persistent chronic pain, they very naturally become focused on reducing that pain. In my work with people in chronic pain, I generally encourage people to change this focus. Specifically, I suggest that people focus on being able to do more (which, in pain management jargon, is referred to as increasing function) and improving their quality of life.

If you are interested in learning more about the rationale behind this suggestion, you may enjoy listening to this webinar on Functional Measures for Assessing and Managing People with Chronic Pain with Dr. Jane Ballantyne (1hr).

I invite people to consider that chronic pain is largely a function issue. Every human body has a maximum amount of activity that they can engage in before they end up in an incredible amount of pain. For some human bodies, that amount of activity can be as much as doing a marathon or an Ironman triathlon. For other human bodies, that amount of activity might be simply washing the breakfast dishes or taking a shower.

For people who end up in incredible amounts of pain after something like washing dishes, we want to coach them to slowly increase the amount of activity they are able to perform before their pain flares up.

This podcast with world-renowned pain researcher, Lorimer Moseley, offers insight into this process of slowly changing what the body can tolerate (45min).

For many people, an important part of the healing process is reducing expectations around how much they will be able to do. To clarify what I mean, I ask the people in my programs: what are the things you give up in an effort to get more done?

Here is a list of the most popular answers:

  • Sleep
  • Eating well
  • Self-care
  • Spending time with family and friends

It’s a short list, but I would argue that everything on that list is essential to being a healthy human being.

The research supporting links between sleep and our overall well-being continues to get stronger, and there are incredible links between a lack of sleep and pain. We are only ever going to feel as well as we eat, and caring for ourselves is an essential foundation of being able to meet the demands of life, long-term. We are social creatures. We need human connection, but many of us forgo opportunities to spend time with others in exchange for getting more done.

While many of us are already doing more than is sustainable, we also feel like we like we still have way too much to do, like we are just constantly trying to keep up. We want to take care of ourselves, eat well, rest well, and see our loved ones, but we also want to get sh*t done. How do we do both? How do we find balance?

I have gotten a lot better at finding balance over the years, and for me, the answers have largely come in the form of practicing yoga, mindfulness, and meditation. (Though a husband who has a very low tolerance for “all business Sarah”, as he calls it, has also played a role.) If I were to summarize the way that my yoga practice has helped me to decrease my expectations around function, I’d say:

  • Practicing yoga has chipped away at an ingrained belief that we are what we do, that my productivity is my worth. Yoga has a way of teaching us that we are who we are; we are kind, compassionate, wise, and generous beings who are inherently worthy of love and belonging.
  • The tools of yoga have deepened my body awareness and allowed me to become much more aware of how I am being impacted by the choices I make. I notice that crappy food makes me feel crappy. I notice that upsetting movies really upset me. I notice the moments where I can choose to feel more ease. I notice that I am happier when life is slower.

I continue to work on being at peace with my sense that there is too much to do. Quite likely, I will feel this way for the rest of my life. I can choose to respond with urgency and try to get more and more done, or I can choose to respond with playful laughter and focus on enjoying whatever thing I am actually doing right now.

Whenever I die, there will be things left undone. I can resist that or I can accept it. The challenge of my practice is to continue to choose the path of acceptance because it brings me infinitely more joy.