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Filtering by Category: yoga

Leaps of faith down a path less traveled

Jennifer Oechsner

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I recently celebrated my 43rd birthday and wow, a lot has happened in my last journey around the sun. In fact, I feel like the past 3 years have been rife with transition, leaps of faith and big change.  Celebrating my 43rd birthday in Shanghai is not something I thought I would be doing a year, or even 6 months ago. But well, life has a funny way of taking twists and turns sometimes. 

If you know me at all, you know that I have never been a person who takes the traditional path in life. Sometimes I think my life would have been easier if I had sought the “American dream”. This path of a traditional career, a house and a family that fills the gaps and empty rooms is something I see bring people great joy and reward. But somehow it is not a path that ever spoke to me. Maybe it was fear or maybe it’s been the longing to explore, or maybe both. 

The small catholic school I went to in Hartford, WI had a cultural fair of sorts every year. One year when I was 9 or 10 I remember seeing the Japanese table. It was just a small table with a display of a few beautifully exotic items (well, they were exotic to me at the time anyway). I don't remember what was all there but I do remember the kimono hanging on the backdrop, the chopsticks, lacquered bowls and pictures of architecture I longed to see up close. There was something so magical about this part of the world to me; even though I’m not sure I really knew exactly where it was at the time. Between that, my fascination with the Blue Lagoon and all the time I spent spinning the globe in my living room I knew that there was so much out there to explore. My naive young mind didn't know that I was putting energy into the world that just might have a strong impact on how my life unfolded. Its fascinating how one seemingly small event, a seemingly innocuous thought or a seemingly small decision can alter the course of one’s life. This ripple effect of small pebbles thrown into the pond of life is something I spend a lot of time contemplating. Maybe this cultural fair put something greater in motion. Maybe thinking this is my adult naive mind. Im really not sure. 

Fast forward to 2016. There were many adventures before then but this is the one that has been the catalyst for a lot of upheaval over the past 3 years. I was traveling alone after a yoga and hiking retreat I led with a friend. In spite of the blazing heat and mosquitos lurking in the grass I decided to do a yoga practice in the garden area of the hotel I was staying at. I remember feeling shy to do it, not wanting to draw attention but I knew my body needed it so I thought, what the hell. After my practice someone approached me and started talking to me about yoga. He worked at a University in Rajasthan, India and asked me if I had ever considered teaching in India. I felt my eyes widen and my stomach flip. I thought, “could it be possible that this is my chance to live abroad again? Could my dream of living in India for a while finally be coming true?” Well, it almost was. Unfortunately the job that was potentially on the table fell through. When it didn't work out I told myself that by the time I turned 42 I would be living abroad again. I had just turned 40. Then, 2 years later, I got an email from the same individual. He wanted to tell me about another opportunity in India. So, long story short, 2 months after I received that I email, I was on a plane headed for Jaipur, India. I sold my car, packed up the stuff that remained after what seemed like 25 trips to good will and off I went. Now of course, there were many tearful goodbyes and moments of terror over whether I was making the right decision. After all, I had a good life in Portland. Lots of friends, a business that was growing, a boyfriend, and I absolutely loved living in the Pacific Northwest. But I just couldn't say no. The universe was giving me a gift. I knew that if I didn't to do it, the time would come quickly that I would regret it. What transpired over the next 9 months of living in India was interesting to say the least. The specifics of that experience are better left for another story. For now, I am more curious about the leap of faith it took to get me there. 

In the past few months there have been a series of additional leaps. I made the hard decision to say goodbye to someone I cared about very much. I committed to 10 days of meditation when I could barely manage sitting in meditation for 15 minutes a couple days a week. I spent 2 weeks on a motorcycle with someone I barely knew going in. And now, here I am in Shanghai living in a city that I never thought much about and it turns out I love it. I’m not saying I’ll stay forever, I just mean that life is full of surprises. 

Shanghai is by far the biggest city I have ever lived in. But its also safe, relatively quiet, the streets are clean and the metro system is fantastic. A few of my other favorite things are all of the lush green parks, the old couples dancing in the park at dusk, watching the Tai Chi practitioners when I run in the morning, the old men and their little birds in cages, Chinese “breakfast burritos”, and the plethora of culinary oddities I have admired but yet to try. 

In spite of all of the amazing things I have seen and wonderful experiences I have had, I’m still not sure exactly where my path will take me; this path who's seed was planted many years ago has not yet been fully cultivated. My choice to evade the path commonly chosen hasn't really felt like a choice, but something I was drawn to. I am sure this was hugely frustrating to my parents when I was younger (I think they are used to it now), but I have always been inclined to let the wind take me. Birthdays are a time of contemplation for many of us and for me the older I get the bigger the questions. One of them is whether I should keep taking these leaps of faith? Each one has resulted in some hardship along with the joy. Before my hands even made it back to the keyboard I knew the answer, a resounding no. Could I learn to be a little more cautious sometimes? Well sure and there are some mistakes I have learned from. But I still can say that I have followed my heart and that is something that this leo sure is drawn to do. The loneliness I sometimes feel on this path is one of the hardest parts. I have met so many wonderful people in my travels but its not the same as the comfort and security we experience with family and friends we have been close to for a long time. While I know that this empty space we all feel sometimes can’t be filled by cars or houses but it also cant be filled by mountain views and filling up my passport. I’m still working on the complete answer but what I do know is that embracing the truth of who we are and the path we have chosen is a step in the right direction for us all to cultivate long term happiness.

As I continue to navigate life in yet another new country I also continue to navigate the minutiae of my psyche. The challenges that present themselves put to test the skills I have learned in my meditation training. The new friends and random acts of kindness from strangers keep me hopeful and rooted in joy. 

The Sounds of Silence

Jennifer Oechsner

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For the past few years I have toyed with the idea of taking part in a 10 day Vipassana course. I never was sure I could handle it and didn't think I was a serious enough meditator to take on something like this. What is Vipassana? It's an ancient meditation technique that was practiced in India roughly 2500 years ago. The tradition became adulterated and watered down and eventually died out. It was reinvigorated in Myanmar in the 20th century and is now practiced around the world. (For more information go to dhamma.org)

There are several Vipassana centers in India and Nepal and it seemed like the perfect time for me to take on this challenge. To be honest, going in I didn't know much about it other than that it was 10 days of silence and a whole lot of meditation. I thought maybe it was better to go in without expectations so with an open mind and a trusting heart I signed up for the June course in Pokhara, Nepal.

As June 1st grew closer my excitement gradually gave way to fear and apprehension. I questioned whether I would be able to handle it. Then, on the way there in the taxi I stopped at the ATM so I could pay the driver and I wasn't able to access any cash. I tried 4 different ATMs and none of them would work. Sweat dripped down my back, my breath quickened, and a knot formed in my stomach. There had been other obstacles I had to overcome in the previous week and I was feeling panic with this new one. Miraculously I was able to contact the bank and they were able to fix the issue. I definitely lost my cool on that one. Interesting timing wasn't it?

When I finally arrived at the meditation center I was pleasantly surprised by the view. The center was situated on the top of a hill overlooking a beautiful lake and rolling mountains as far as you could see. On a couple of mornings that are rare for this time of year the clouds dispersed and the mighty, snowy peaks of the Himalaya revealed themselves. Another metaphor for the journey we were on together for those 10 days.

When I was taken to my room I was surprised to see that I would be sharing a room with 5 other women. Would be interesting to be in such close proximity to 5 people I couldn't talk to or interact with.  As I crawled beneath the blanket on that first night and listened to the rain pound on the metal roof I felt the grip of fear return. I thought to myself, "what the hell am I doing here? How will I possibly get through the next 10 days?" It turns out, one day and one breath at a time. 

When the morning gong echoed through the air at 4am I peeled my eyes open and got ready for the first round of meditation. What transpired over the following days and hours of sitting on that cushion in that sometimes stifling room was an erratic mixture of emotions, sensations and energetic flow.

I knew that some people didn't last the whole time and on day 2 the first person left, then a few more as the course went on. I was determined make it through. I was fascinated by what would happen to my brain while sitting in meditation for so many hours. Turns out, it's really hard to concentrate. Part of Vipassana is connecting to the sensations of the body through a type of body scan. Starting at my head, I would often only get to my nose and my mind would wander to wondering what was for breakfast, what the next phase of my life will look like in China, wondering what happened to my first boyfriend, or the girl who was so mean to me in 1st and 2nd grade....the list of distracting thoughts goes on and on. Then the questions would arise. Was I failing?...just breath...How will I get through 9 more hours?...just breath. Will my back hurt the whole time?...just breath. I had to continually remind myself to come back, to focus, to persevere and that nothing is permanent. I had to remind myself to be grateful to be there and to embrace the gift of the journey I was on.  As I look back it was truly a microcosm of life. There is often pain in life. There so many distractions that take us from our path. We are so often faced with the choice of taking challenges head on or burying our head in the sand. We can choose to run from the pain of growth or dive in and experience the pain so we can see more clearly how to get through it the next time it arises.  There are times when we question our inherent wisdom and forget our innate compassion. The practice of Vipassana can help bring you back to your truth.

As a yoga practitioner I understand the connection of mind and body and understand that our body holds tension that is generated in the mind. Like yoga, this is part of the expereince of Vipassana. When we are able to connect to (however uncomfortable) the pain in the body, we can then release the patterns of misery generated in the mind. The hips can hold deep rooted pain. The lower back can hold tightly to traumas the mind holds tightly to. The upper back can hold tightly to the tension of a fearful heart. I felt all of these in my body. And I also felt release. The release came with rushes of energy flooding areas of my body and this energy was often accompanied by tears. Not tears of sadness or even tears attached to a particular thought, but rather, tears of release; tears of letting go. These moments were profound. The tricky part of this was not becoming attached to the experience and letting the waves come and go with the grace of an ocean tide. 

The teaching of Vipassana is rife with life lessons. One that stood out to me that I wanted to share is the power of planting the seeds of the fruit you wish to have in your life. Do you plant seeds of doubt or seeds of hope? Do you plant seeds of faith or seeds of cynicism? Do you plant seeds of joy or seeds of misery? The mind is a powerful tool but can also be a powerful weapon when left to run wild. I believe that we can all train our mind to nurture and cultivate seeds of positivity. As the story goes, if you want to have sweet mangos, then you can't plant seeds of the bitter neem tree.

When the vow of silence ended on the afternoon of day 9 it felt strange to talk. But quickly the room buzzed with joyful conversation. Somehow we had created relationships through the shared energy and shared experience.  It felt as though a special bond was created. While at first I was disappointed to be sharing a room with so many people, it turned into a wonderful experience. Another way perspective shifted my reality.

These 10 days began a new chapter in my long journey of self-discovery. The path of awareness, the path of Dhamma, is one of truth. But it is also a path that requires patience and persistence. The path can be painful but it can also lighten your mind and your heart and deepen the most important relationship you have in your life; the relationship you have with yourself. 

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The Warrior in Warrior-Flow

Jennifer Oechsner

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After our yoga practice the other day a few of my students asked about my tattoos. You could say that the 2 larger ones express a sort of fierceness. One is dragon inspired by Shambhala, representing "unwavering strength". The other is a cluster of cherry blossoms with the Japanese symbol for warrior in the center. I laughed  to myself and thought, "they must think I'm so tough". And in some ways I am but that is not the reason I am drawn to these inspirations of fierceness. Way back in 2011 when I was contemplating what to call my business and came up with Warrior-Flow I wanted something that sounded strong and yes I am a martial artist and a warrior in that sense. But the warrior in Warrior-Flow came from something deeper which is the essence of who I strive to be in the buddhist sense of the word which is to be strong in who you are. This a battle many of us fight.

I'm going to be candid here. From a very young age I struggled with self-confidence and body image issues started very young. I was always a sensitive soul and tears have always come easily to my eyes. For much of my life I saw this sensitivity as a cross to bear and was ashamed of the tears that often fell. While I now see my sensitive soul as an asset I am still working on the tears part. However, in my heart I know that however I experience my emotions is ok. If I cry, so what. Crying is a release and an expression of deep emotion and what is wrong with that? This past week one of my students was struggling with this issue and I reassured her that her tears were ok and not to worry about how it seemed to others. I reassured her that there is strength in letting yourself feel your emotions. It was a good reminder for me to give this same compassion to myself. 

As I have mentioned, living in India has had its share of ups and downs, as life always does. Sometimes life's daily struggles seem amplified here. Maybe it's because so much is foreign and so little that is familiar. I don't mean this negatively, but rather that there is constant food for thought. Sure I have my daily routines and places I frequent but these routines are still met with a sense of having to navigate carefully and be strong in who I am. For example when I go to the gym in the early morning I have a basic structure I like to follow. When I select my weights for each exercise in my circuit sometimes some guy will come and take them when I put them down for a moment. Now, I realize that there are a limited number of dumbbells and I don't want to hog them but to me its customary for people to share in this situation, but there hadn't been this consideration. I assumed it was because I am a woman (usually the only one in the free weight area) but I wasn't sure whether I was being overly sensitive. Was their behavior a cultural thing? Was it reflective of Indian sexism? Now I think so. Over time, people started asking before they take weights that I might still be using. And now they even return them to me when they are done so that we can share. I feel like I had to earn the respect of my fellow gym-goers. I don't know why it took so long, I can certainly squat more than most of the men there who seem to only be interested in working their arms (but this is a story for another day). My point is that even something simple like gym etiquette is the source of personal reflection and cultural analysis. 

Life will always be filled with tests; tests of strength, of courage, of beliefs and of one's ability to communicate kindly. I firmly believe that strength in one's sense of self is the key. Strength begets strength and sends a positive vibration into the universe.  So the fact that I am drawn to intensity and messages of fierceness is the fact that I need regular reminders to stand strong in who I am. There is a beauty and grace in this for everyone. The only way to soar is to see that you have wings. Sometimes it hard to spread them but once you do its hard to go back. 

What makes you soar?

The mental push ups of mindfullness

Jennifer Oechsner

Movement is a big part of my life and on most days I engage in some type of physical activity. This helps to keep me grounded and connect to my strength (both physical and otherwise). When I am in times of struggle, the ways I move my body tend to get more intense. I run faster, I lift heavier, I stretch deeper. Moving my body helps me to heal my mind. 

However, I tend to miss and important part of the healing process. My meditation practice takes a back burner, subconsciously avoiding sitting with the difficult emotions. Its so much easier to sit when positivity dominates my mental landscape. However, its during times of struggle that I need it the most. Recently, I have been exploring sitting with sadness when it arises. My pattern is to fight it, beat it into submission. With an open and tender heart, I am learning that all of my emotions are ok and that they key is not to let them carry me away. This is not easy work and I'm not saying I will stop going for a hard run during times of struggle but I am making more of an effort to sit in the space I am in. Running is easy, sitting is hard. 

In the Shambhala tradition it is taught that opening to sadness with a tender heart is a source of genuine bravery. This warrior's path teaches us to live courageously, meeting the challenges of our lives with compassion, allowing us to care for ourselves and others. Life's circumstances and corresponding emotions fluctuate day to day and sometimes minute to minute. It is only through mindfulllness practices that we can learn to navigate these fluctuations with grace. I wouldn't expect to be able to do any push ups without conscious work. Likewise, I can't expect to become skilled at taming my mind without regular practice. 

Do you have a regular meditation practice? Are you looking to start one? I would love to help. Contact me and let's put a plan into action!

A shield, a sword and love....

Jennifer Oechsner

There's a wonder woman in all of us.

Since I was a very little girl I always thought wonder woman was pretty damn cool. She had that awesome costume (and looked so pretty wearing it!), she didn't take any shit, she had her very own jet she could take anywhere and no one could see her fly away because it was invisible. And then the biggest one, she could outfight and outsmart so many boys. (i'm sure this last point of admiration had something to do with the fact that my older brother did such a great job terrorizing me). 

Like so many women from my generation I was thrilled when the Wonder Woman the movie recently came out. Like so many others, I left the theater inspired and empowered.

Don't worry, no spoiler alert!....

In the movie Wonder Woman left her comfortable home to venture out into the world to fight. She could have stayed in her comfort zone but she couldn't ignore the pull to fight the demons who were destroying the world. She was told not to leave, there were times when she was told she couldn't do it. Yet she persevered. She was told to keep her head down and that there was nothing she could do but she chose to fight. At a pivotal point in the movie she shed her cloak of disguise so she could fight unencumbered. And then she really kicked some ass. 

While most of us will not have to fight on an external battlefield, we all walk a battlefield within on a daily basis. We are faced with people who tell us we can't do it, we limit ourselves through our self doubt, we wear cloaks the prevent us from showing our authentic self to the world. We all need to find a shield to deflect the naysayers, a sword to cut through our own limiting beliefs, and to shed the cloak the hides our inner light. 

Over the years I have been drawn to practices that provide the arsenal I need to get through life's battles. Yoga helps bring me peace, a pair of boxing gloves and a heavy bag kick the shit out of some self doubt and meditation helps me to let my light shine.

What is your shield? What is your sword? How do you bring love into the battlefield of life? I'd love to hear from you. We are in this together. Let's all be soldiers for peace, peace that starts within. If more of us were fighting for peace within and fighting for those who cant fight for themselves how different could the world be?

Cultivate Joy, the Lion's Path

Jennifer Oechsner

As most of you know, I recently returned from a 3 week journey in Nepal. Two weeks of that journey were spent co-leading a yoga and meditation retreat with Kimi Marin. Upon my return I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the experience. So often when we return from a vacation we bask in our more relaxed existence for a short time and then quickly return to our patterns of stress, sleep deprivation and old thought patterns. Following my recent journey I have been focused on keeping the emotional and energetic benefits I received from this fantastic adventure at the forefront of my mind. 
 

One of the feelings that comes to mind when I reflect is joy. Joy for being able to visit such a fascinating country, joy for sharing the experience with a dear friend, joy for the new friends I made, and joy for the laughter we found along the way. Joy isn't just about having fun, but also about the deeper spiritual connection it cultivates. A connection with ourselves and with others.

The Shambhala tradition references the importance of joy in our lives. The path of Shambhala is about awakening to the potential in our lives. In part, this potential is awakened by living a meaningful and joyful life. Within the Shambhala tradition, this joy is represented by the snow lion. The snow lion breathes the fresh air high in the Himalaya, free from the cage we often place ourselves in. We cultivate joy through discipline. Discipline can be practiced in many ways, through meditation, yoga, creating art, living a healthy lfe, or service to others. Each of these paths can lead us down the path of the snow lion, a life of meaningful joy. To find this joy, we must be mindful in our endeavors. Mindful pursuits that feed the soul cultivate joy, help us to realize all that we are capable of, and make us better citizens of the world.

Your weekly yoga practice is a great place to cultivate a mindful life. When you come to your mat, have fun, be joyful and be mindful. Embody the snow lion.

Parallel Paths

Jennifer Oechsner

When I started dabbling in yoga it was mostly curiosity and the desire to improve my flexibility. My body was also beat up and tired from martial arts and I thought that yoga would be good for me. I thought it would help my back pain (which it did). But I also thought it would be too slow for me (which it wasn't). My weekly practice became something I really looked forward to, even though at that point it was secondary to my martial arts practice. When I started really listening to the messages that were shared at the beginning of my yoga classes I realized that the spiritual aspects of these 2 paths are similar. 

When I began my martial arts journey in Taekwondo, we were taught a list of principals to follow as part of the path. Contrary to what I had originally thought, this path was not just about being tough and learning how to defend myself. There was so much more to it. Within the Taekwondo system there are 5 tenets, or principles, that are an important aspect of the system. These tenets are courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self control, and indomitable spirit. To be an honorable student, one is encouraged to live and practice under these principles. 

The spiritual system of yoga also has a set of ethical guidelines. These guidelines can help us live in harmony with others, and with ourselves. These principles are non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, non-excess, non-possessiveness, purity, contentment, self discipline, self study and surrender. To apply these principles to everyday life, we have to look at them from different angles. For example, while it's obvious that it's wrong to cause physical harm to others, non-violence also applies to harmful speech. This might prove more challenging to adhere to. When practicing truthfulness are you doing so in a way that is not hurtful to others? Literal interpretation of these guidelines is not always enough, one must view these principles through a wide lens. 

When considering the tenets of Taekwondo and the ethical guidelines of yoga the overlap became clear. Courtesy correlates to truthfulness, integrity to non-stealing, perseverance to self-study, self-control to non-excess and indomitable spirit to self-discipline. Realizing this overlap made me realize that the two paths I have been on are not really two paths at all, but one path with steps that shifts their rhythm. Some days I need sun salutations to remind me to live my life from a place of contentment. Some days I need the catharsis of round house kicks to bring me back to my indomitable spirit. Sometimes I find myself running in too many directions and I use inversions to remind me of the need for perseverance. Sometimes I notice myself becoming lazy and losing track of my goals and I practice my spinning kicks to reaffirm the need for self study.

Both martial arts and yoga give me great joy and I feel blessed to have found these passions in my life. Martial arts gave me confidence and a sense of belonging when I needed it most. It continues to help me cultivate mental and physical strength, attributes I am proud to posses. Yoga provides me balance, peace and a connection to myself and others. All of which are important for a well rounded life. What brings you strength? What are your passions? How do you connect? I would love to hear your stories. 

Backing Into Spring

Jennifer Oechsner

These glorious sunny days and warmer temperatures bring with them a sense of opening. All around us we see signs of spring; longer days, shade trees with tiny green buds and stunning cherry blossoms blooming throughout our beautiful city.  With the coming of spring my yoga practice is evolving as well. When I come to my mat I too want to open and find myself regularly practicing back bends. They feel natural and welcome in my body and I have a sense of tuning into the natural world around me. In honor of spring and this interconnection, we will be exploring back bends in my yoga classes for the month of March.  Each week we will focus on a different back bending pose to play with. We will explore how to safely prepare and execute these back bends for any level of practitioner

Back bends can present challenges for anyone. You come to a class and you see someone floating up into wheel (urdhva dhanurasana) with ease or playfully reaching  for king pigeon (eka pada rajakapotanasana) and it can be difficult not to fall into the trap of self judgement and comparison. Each time you come to your mat it is important respect where you are in your practice and work safely to progress to the next level. Regardless of your level,  even the stiffest among us can find some joy in back bends.  

For many of us, our daily activities make back bends even more challenging. We spend our days hunched over smart phones, computer screens and bicycle handlebars. We spend our weekends hiking, skiing, running, and lets face it, with more sitting.  All of these activities tighten the chest, hips, legs and back. We tighten the front of the body and in the process limit the flexibility of the back body. We spend very little time bending backward, a movement our spines were designed to make. This limitation can cause of variety of issues including low back pain, hip pain, rotator cuff issues and limited mobility of the spine.

For many of us, back bends also tap into something deeper, fear. The fear of falling back is very real.  We are afraid of what will happen if we move our body in that way. We are afraid of the opening and the sense of vulnerability  we have in these poses. Regular practice of back bends helps this fear dissipate. Not only are these poses great for the body, but they offer a deeper life training as well. Sometimes we are presented with obstacles we must overcome. Sometimes life takes us out of our comfort zone. Coming to your mat to explore postures that test your boundaries is one of the ways yoga is such an amazing training ground for life. 


Join me this month for an exploration of opening your heart, reviving your body, and stepping into the unknown.