The Heart is Just a Muscle

Self Portrait, 2017 by Daniel Genova (used with permission)

I remember, in high school I was at a friend’s house and her father (I’ll call him Bruce) was watching some news show. They were reporting about a doctor who was doing research on heart disease, meditation and the body/mind connection. The doctor called the heart an organ of acceptance… or maybe something similar.

The conversation that ensued focused on the fact that the heart is a muscle and the belief that it is nothing more. My friend’s father was convinced that the story was a bunch of hooey, railed that the whole thing was beyond silly, called the doctor a quack and lit a joint.

This was around the time that I took my first yoga class in the auditorium at my school. I wasn’t much for competitive sports and I needed to earn my PE credits somehow. I didn’t know at the time that it would be the beginning of a journey. It took a long time, but I now know that when we take the time to notice deeply, what you can discover about these bodies that we inhabit will inspire awe. Nothing of which we are made is just an anything.

Our hearts, guts, brains, nerves and everything else are subject not only to their own intelligent functions but to the symphony of our bodies and minds. If you have ever placed your hand to your heart as a gesture of gratitude, had a sudden need to evacuate your bowels (or vomit) when presented with sudden anxiety or reacted to an event with a response more dramatic than the situation called for, you have been intimate with that symphony. 

While these reactions are responses to stimuli, the real noticing comes when we consciously focus our awareness inside. Many long haul COVID patients are finding relief from pranayama. This is not only because it inspires focus on the breath, it also engages that focusing to inspire insight into the workings of the entire body and the relationships: physical, emotional, energetic and spiritual, that reside there. 

So, do I believe the heart is more than just a muscle? Absolutely. The fullness of mine when I’m with my loved ones and emptiness I’ve felt when betrayed confirm it. Also, I continue to be bolstered by sensations within my structure and what they tell me about my overall well being. Those sensations are gifts.

A lot can happen in 40 years and I don’t know what Bruce thinks now. I like to think of him at 90 something attending mindfulness conferences in Palo Alto or the Berkshires. I imagine though that he has not embraced the heart as an organ of acceptance even if I hope he has.


Last week I found myself in the emergency room. The details are such that it brought me back to the yoga and putting things in perspective. 

My visit to the ER was requested by my doctor who, having heard the symptoms of a slightly swollen and sore lower leg, wanted to be sure that I wasn’t nursing a blood clot. I was pretty sure that a clot wasn’t the problem but she’s nothing if not thorough. I complied. After fulfilling all my professional and personal obligations I dragged myself to the hospital. I knew my visit there would be lengthy and was glad that I had my knitting and plenty of downloaded podcasts. 

I arrived at the hospital at 8:00 PM and was quickly triaged and made to know that my situation was not high priority (duh). I was led to a fairly quiet seating area where I was told that as soon as there was room in the ER I would be called in. I sat, listened, knitted, texted until I was called into the ER at 10:00 PM.

The contrast between the place I had been waiting and the place I would now be waiting was profound and was made more profound when I was escorted past the room where they tried to resuscitate my father after his brain hemorrhage, oh yay.
My dad being sculpted by M. Ambroise
My Dad posing for the talented Meg Ambroise.

Suddenly, I was bathed in bright, unflattering fluorescent light and surrounded by about 100 people all in some form of distress. It was loud, people had fevers, were concussed, getting stitches, working in this controlled mayhem, one guy on a gurney was singing R & B favorites (this was not helpful) and the guy next to me had passed out at dinner which made me think of other horrible events. I felt guilty for being there to ask for care from an already overextended employee population. I’d already been there for two hours though and had promised my doctor.

It dawned on me then that I was likely one of the most well people in the room. I wasn’t in pain, I wasn’t sick, I wasn’t working there, I didn’t have a fever, I wasn’t coughing, I wasn’t bleeding, I wasn’t hopelessly inebriated. My leg was a little swollen and sore and I had plenty to occupy me so I sat, watched and waited, breathing and understanding that I was lucky.

When eventually seen by a doctor at midnight he was gracious and kind as I told him why I was there and confirmed my own doctor’s desire to rule out a Deep Vein Thrombosis. We decided on a course of action and after a relatively quick and painless blood test it was determined that it was unlikely that I had a DVT. I was released at 1:00 AM. 

So, what’s the point? The moral of this unremarkable story is how remarkably calm and centered I felt during my five hours in the ER. I firmly believe that my practice assisted me to view my situation from an empathetic perspective and to understand that this was not a situation that was going to be changed or helped by my engaging in pushy or disruptive behavior. Instead I sat in admiration of all the ER docs, nurses, and administrative helpers who were working their tushies off.

I felt the ‘present of presence’ strongly that night. I hope you have opportunities to feel it too.

“I Have Nothing to Learn”

When I worked in corporate human resources as a training and development executive one of my pet peeves were people who thought that they had nothing to learn, who knew that their experience prepared them for the subtleties of leading a team successfully and so much else.  These were usually the people I had been asked to coach or find external coaches for. They were the ones whose teams got the work done but begrudgingly and with a certain amount of cajoling.

These individuals were so sure that their way was successful and could not see that small adjustments could yield a host of superior results, and not just the corporate metrics kinds of results. Their jobs could have been more pleasant with healthier relationships both with their teams and those they reported to. By harnessing a greater sense of trust they would not have had to do so much of the work themselves and by cultivating curiosity, their own and others, they would have been better able to access tools for more harmonious and productive workplaces.

Yoga continues to teach me that there is no one way to do anything and the more open you remain to possibilities the better able you will be to incorporate those possibilities into whatever you do. I want to learn something every day and yoga makes that happen. There’s what you can learn from reading or trying a new recipe and there’s what you can learn from being present in your body, experiencing and directing sensation, it is all relevant.

I like to focus on the often repeated asana in the practice like Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog), Tadasana (Mountain Pose) or Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II). As many times as I’ve done these poses they never feel the same twice and every time I do them I learn something new. I learn something about my body, my breath, resilience, awareness, the earth, relationships. The possibilities are endless. You just need to be open to them.

I’d like to think that those executives I once worked with have evolved to a place where they can be open to suggestions, where they can sit with discomfort and discover something new. At this point I’ll never know.

You Can’t Legislate Racism

I continue to have these little aha moments.

Working in corporate Human Resources as a trainer I realized that it didn’t matter how much money you threw at harassment free workplace training, it wasn’t really going to work. Why? It’s kind of like addiction. You have to want help. You have to hit some kind of rock bottom and realize that you have a problem. Until that happens you’re never really going to change. Outwardly you might make it look like you’ve seen the error or your ways but then, when you get home, you consume a quart of vodka.

African American siblings, early 1900s
My grandmother (left) and her siblings circa 1935.

It’s the same way with serial harassers. You can tell them not to treat another person in a manner that would upset them if the behavior were directed towards a loved one, spouse, parent, child, sibling (which makes perfect sense to me). You can go through exercises and role playing, show them videos that make them cringe and think they’ve learned something. Heck, they may even think they’ve learned something. The next thing you know, you’re in a meeting with them trying to review an employee’s maternity leave and they say, “I don’t understand why she can’t just keep her legs shut anyway.” What, like you’ve never had sex with your wife? How many children do you have? But I digress.

What I’m getting at is that you can pass laws intended to grant people equal access and treatment. Those laws, rules or guidelines however are not going to change the way we think and feel, only the way we  behave, mostly. Laws don’t change mindsets. Laws don’t change the root causes of stereotypes. In many instances opposition to the laws and rules, et al. will intensify any feelings of “otherness” and increase any perceived justification for mistreatment. Basically, any law intended to mitigate racism always holds the possibility of increasing it. Chew on that.

So what do we do? I’m not an expert but I’ve been absorbing as much information as I can. This musing is based on observation, some reading and watching and little else. I truly believe in the value of education, open mindedness, self observation and a willingness to learn. Watch your own behavior. Be aware of the stereotypes that you invoke. Let your friends know when they say or do something offensive. Don’t let a resolution made in the aftermath of another tragedy fall by the wayside. Recognize, respect and embrace everyone’s differences regardless of… anything. Sit with discomfort.

The pecking order of discrimination was again amplified by the Trump administration and that is the topic of another percolating post.

Some of my recent inquiry was conducted with:

My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem

A Promised Land by Barack Obama 

The 13th a film by Ava DuVernay

I Tried

I tried to stay away from the one year anniversary of our collective sheltering in. I tried not to think about it, to keep the anniversary out of my meditations and classes. I figure no one needs for me to tell them the obvious. I figure most of us know what we were doing a year ago when we were asked to stay home, when “social distancing” went from an unfamiliar to ubiquitous phrase, when home took on a very new meaning.

I’ve found myself pretty down lately. Yes, more down than usual. The first day of spring is right around the corner and so many things just remind me of the whirlwind year we’ve had. There’s been so much senseless death and suffering from obvious and less obvious sources. We’ve lived through a contentious and eventually exuberant Presidential election which brought about a complete 180° shift in governmental messaging. I’ve struggled with not thinking those who think differently than I obtuse. I watched as those I consider to be obtuse and dangerous stormed the Capital in protest of what, I have no idea. There has been so much hate and vitriol and fireworks and when you think it can’t get any worse another angry doofus with a gun who can’t get laid thinks that opening fire on a bunch of strangers will solve all his problems.

And it’s March. Again… Maybe I didn’t try hard enough.

Then I notice the palpable feeling of the air against my hand as it sweeps to the floor after extended time in trikonasana and I’m entranced.

Photograph of teens at a socially distanced party.
Our backyard graduation party. At least we have a backyard.

I know that I’ve been lucky. I saw friends and celebrated milestones during the warm months of 2020. I made new friends studying and practicing in our virtual spaces. I continued to teach and share yoga and learn from some of the most gracious individuals. I marveled at my family and our ability to support one another as we struggled. I have a job. My partner has continued to work. My son went to college. Members of my family stricken with COVID are recovering. The fact that there are others for whom the past year has been exponentially more difficult is not lost on me.

I’m still sad though and I’m going to have to be ok with that for a while. A friend who posted on social media that she finds herself crying at the mundane wanted to know if she was alone. I let her know that our collective trauma is profound. Recovery will be hard for everyone as we hopefully round the corner towards a healthier, kinder future.

In the meantime I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.

Happy New Year?

Happy New Year!

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way I’ll move on. I’ve always been ambivalent about this passing of time as January 1st is really just another day. Humans though are generally soothed by landmarks like this and I fall inline, mostly. After all, I had my first real date with my partner on a New Year’s Eve many years ago now, so there’s that.

Image, Shelter, Daniel Genova
Link in Post
Shelter, Daniel Genova, 2020

Granted, 2020 was a year fraught with conflict, illness and walls and for me it was also full of learning, compromise, bonding and creativity. I really have a lot to be thankful for. I have a job that has continued to help sustain me during the last 10 months.  In 2020 I embarked on a journey that shifted my paradigm around practicing and teaching yoga and met some pretty great people along the way. I have been able to continue to teach yoga and share the practice, which is a gift. I was lucky enough to be able to celebrate a few milestones with friends and family. While attending college on-line, I watched my son start to think differently as he was challenged. My partner made and sold art and made plans for a solo retrospective to take place this spring. I read a lot of books. I’m healthy.

I’m still happy to see 2020 go and am looking forward to happier times, hugs (lots of hugs) and maybe seeing the bottom halves of people’s faces, but we don’t really know what 2021 has in store for us. With that in mind I am continuing to operate with my antennae at full attention.

It’s January and we’re still talking about an election that took place in November. Those who continue to undermine the election process scare the bajeesus out of me and are the ones most guilty of the election fraud they yell about so loudly. The collective trauma from which we all need to heal will take ages to work through even without those who would keep our bodies locked in a state of constant anxiety. Then there’s the fact that no matter how much we scream about social justice and systemic racism, without acknowledgement and tough work on individual and collective bases very little will change. As much as protests bring attention to the issues, that’s mostly all they do. You can change or create a new law but if our feelings around race don’t evolve those laws are just band aids under which wounds fester.

For my part, I’ll continue to offer opportunities for self reflection and healing through the practice of yoga and its component parts and see where 2021 takes us.

Happy New Year from my family to yours.  I wish you less drama and more hugs in 2021.

PS – I wrote this prior to the events of January 6, 2021.  Love to you all.

*Image: Shelter by Daniel Genova, 2020,

Pick up the Pieces

Photograph of conch shells.

Like many people I have a collection or two. As a child I collected lots of things, stuffed animals, magic markers, rocks, the usual fare. Most of these collections lost their luster over time and I am now at a point where I try to bring fewer things I can’t  consume or use into my life and home, not more. Enter the conch shell.

I don’t know when I saw the first one that captured my attention. I’m pretty sure though that I was a full fledged adult. All the examples I found on the beaches of Long Island were broken revealing their perfect spiral interiors. Then one day I found one that was intact. It was so beautiful and I added it to my collection. I think one of the aspects of the conch interiors that attracted me is that they remind me so much of people. Our outward appearances have so very little to do with our inner landscapes, biologically, emotionally, spiritually. The same could be said of the inside of hand knits and so many other items.

Recently, while engaging in the blissful activity of daydreaming I realized that these shells represent another metaphor for the human condition. Granted, many things fill that position. These metaphors fuel our imagination and help us to make sense out of an existence that often needs explaining. 

Looking at my collection I realized that my shells were all broken, as we mostly are in one way or another. I noticed that they were all broken in different ways, as we mostly are in one way or another. I noticed that I had one that was whole. Was this the control group? No matter, even my whole one has flaws, whatever that means if you’re looking at shells or people.

Pondering my shells, I thought about my practice and teaching and whether or not Yoga has the potential to help us see our pieces differently. Can we through breath, physical practice, mantra and awareness acknowledge and accept our flaws in all their beauty? Can we have fun doing it? The practice holds this power and more. Feel free to explore and always be curious.

How I Fell in Love With Sun Breath

As the next stage of my yoga education comes to a close and I reflect back on the last six months there is so much to take in. 

We began in a studio then all hell broke loose. We left the studio and stayed home and miraculously our learning continued as the studio beautifully transitioned all its learning to the Zoom platform. There were workshops and asana classes and lectures and posture labs and practice teaching and pranayama and meditation and, and, and…. Then all hell broke loose a second time as the collective wound of systemic racism was opened again, this time with a force to be reckoned with like we haven’t seen for decades. I looked on with anger and sadness as more lives were torn apart with looting in the face of protests. I became more and more afraid of the aftermath of us experiencing 1918 and 1968 at the same time, welcome 2020. I put my head in my hands as I listened to company after company vow to support Black Lives Matter and pledge to be more inclusive as they have done countless times before. I did Sun Breath, a lot.

I have always loved the revelatory nature of my yoga practice. When I think about the number of downward facing dogs I’ve done, that we’ve all done, the mind reels. If each one were the same the practice would have lost its appeal long ago. But they are never the same. Each one is proof of our malleable nature, changing day to day, moment to moment. Like much of what we do, it’s something that deserves attention and not something to be rushed nor taken for granted.

Enter Sun Breath. That thing that I have been rushing and taking for granted.

As expressed in my previous posts in March and April I injured both my ankles. Those injuries are still impacting my mobility. I want to think that I would have tuned in to my breath even if that had not happened but I’ll never know and I have to be OK with that. As I continued my practice I found that at moments when I might have strived for greater length, depth, balance, I found my breath, reliable, steady, calming.

Sun breath has saved me as it has become my “go to” for staying balanced, focused. It has allowed me to explore my inner landscape in new ways. It is now given the respect it deserves and I will no longer take it for granted.

Inner Forest Meditation for Self Reflection

Over the last two weeks I have struggled with my personal reaction to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, now Rayshard Brooks, all the innocents who came before and unfortunately all who will come after. I have watched in horror as looting in response to some of these events targeted hard working Blacks who put their hearts and souls into their businesses only to see them turn to rubble in a heartbeat. I have listened to mostly Brown man after Brown man recount their tales of terror as the police and others have demonstrated to them who holds the power. I experienced that moment when the realization sets in that the reason hypertension is so prevalent among Black males is precisely because they are Black males, targeted and living in states of fear and hyper vigilance as their bodies internalize being constantly threatened. I received at least a dozen emails from companies with whom I’ve done business pledging their allegiance with Black Lives Matter and promising to do better in their recruiting and representation efforts. These are the same companies from whom I’ve received the same emails on occasion when there is a reason for White Guilt to be present. I also started to think about myself as a mixed-race and outwardly appearing Black woman and my own role in this drama. 

The more I turned inward and examined my reactions the more I started to consider my response and so I offer this. 

This Friday, June 19, 2020 at 9:00 EDT, I will host a public meditation, via Zoom, designed for inner reflection. During this guided meditation participants will identify different aspects of themselves and maybe even generational aspects of their existence before settling into silence, being with what was revealed, clearing energy and focusing on the future. Pre-registration will be required and donations of any amount will be collected via Venmo to benefit the Equal Justice Initiative. Donations will not be required for participation.

Please join me.

Zoom Meeting ID: 793 5055 4326

Password and Venmo information will be provided upon registration.

Learn more about the Equal Justice Initiative here

The Revealing Nature of Injury

In an effort to stay active during this COVID-19 lockdown I took up trying to run to supplement my yoga practice.  I’m lucky, I guess. I live in a place where I can do that while staying far away from others, over 20’ for the most part. 

I don’t like to run. It’s kind of miserable but I found an app that makes it bearable by letting me pretend that I’m helping during a zombie apocalypse, supports you with gentle workouts and doesn’t make you feel like you’re going to die, unless it’s from a zombie attack.

Three weeks ago I was finally starting to enjoy myself when I twisted my left ankle pretty badly. Eight days later I was out walking and the ankle was feeling ok. It was still swollen but pretty pain free so I started to trot again. I was feeling pretty good doing the intervals and on my last one, within the last 20 feet of my last running spurt I twisted the other ankle. This one was worse. I hobbled home, defeated and angry, locked myself in the bedroom and therapeutically screamed six or seven times, turned on the yoga class I had registered for but then just curled up on the floor and cried for 20 minutes. After that I made my way to the couch to self medicate with Bloody Marys and TV.

The screaming and crying, while precipitated by the prospect of being incapacitated by a stupid injury were really a reaction to the current situation. I miss going to the office, people are dying, I’m afraid that this is it, that humanity has met its Waterloo and I’m afraid of what the future holds for my 17 year old who is planning on starting college in the fall. It took a fall for me to face my fear and it wasn’t pretty.

All that was on Easter Sunday. On Monday I felt better, physically and mentally and I began to practice yoga truly modifying to accommodate the pain. I went through the week cursing my rotten luck and being frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t even feel good Adho Mukha Svanasana, then came Saturday.

In my Yoga Teacher Training we had been focusing on ascending and descending (Arohan and Awarohan) breath for a few weeks. This construct for me was initially limiting and confusing. Once practiced, it became informative and stimulating. The class for which I had registered that day focused heavily on this breath and in Parsvottanasana I became more interested in the feeling of the breath in this pose than whether or not my body would allow me greater flexion. From that moment in that practice my curiosity about each posture came from a place of breath placement that I’m not sure I had experienced before, ever. The feeling was unexpected and luxurious.

As yoga teachers we often say that if your breath catches or is constricted in a pose to back off and find a place where the breath can be free. We mean it, for ourselves and for our students. How often though, do we truly prioritize the breath over the Asana? We know we should but do we? This experience was different for me. The level of internal exploration was powerful, healing, wonderful and something I will explore for a while. At least while my ankles heal.

I have one gentleman who comes to class and isn’t happy if he can breathe. He tries to muscle his way into whatever Asana we’re doing, breath be damned. It kills me and the teacher in me can’t turn a blind eye, but it is his practice. I have faith too that one day he will discover what actually breathing can accomplish for him. When that day comes, we’ll rejoice together.