Joy to Your World

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"I have an image in my head that in my yoga practice the three separate strands that make up my body, mind, and breath are woven into one beautiful braid," says yoga teacher Eva Barash. "But during the holidays, my braid unravels. The strands fly away in different directions: My body is waiting online to buy my mom a present, but my mind is thinking about that night's Hanukkah party, and my breath is missing!"

Most of us can relate. But Barash and other yogis who share their traditions here have found various ways to turn the frenzied holiday season into a time of resonance and even, dare we say, joy.

  1. Remember the Reason for the Season
    Sidestepping the modern, commercial frenzy that overtakes many of us at this time of year, Jivamukti Yoga cofounder David Life engages fully with the season by focusing on the original meaning of the holidays as he celebrates them: "Christmas reminds us of the birth of the Christ-consciousness love in all beings. The winter solstice is the rebirth of the sun into the spring cycle, when sleeping consciousness blooms from dormancy. Hanukkah is the kindling of the light of hope and blessing, a renewal of wisdom in the world. Kwanzaa celebrates diversity and reviving the dominant culture from the sleep of monotony. And New Year's is a time to reflect and vow to renew virtuous acts toward all sentient beings, bringing them closer to their liberation." Life connects with the subtleties of each holiday by reading books such as The Encyclopedia of Occultism, by Lewis Spence, and The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, by Barbara Walker.
  2. Have a Very Merry Un-Holiday
    "Plan a holiday of your own that has nothing to do with any recognized season," suggests noted Ashtanga Yoga teacher David Swenson, author of Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual. "You could surprise someone with an unexpected gift or prepare a spectacular meal, just because it's Tuesday. Bring a bit of holiday cheer into the void between the calendar dates and make your whole life a celebration of living."
  3. Feed Your Soul
    Eva Barash, creator of the DVD Living Room Yoga: Strengthen and Lengthen and a teacher of Iyengar Yoga in Brooklyn, finds that cooking, whether for a simple meal or a lavish party, makes her feel whole. "It's best if what I'm making requires a lot of methodical chopping of vegetables. Chopping takes time and forces me to be in the moment and only in that moment—lest I lose a finger! I am right there and nowhere else, as I feel the coolness of the carrots and the sting of the onions, or the sound of the sizzling in the pan," says the yoga teacher and former pastry chef. "Cooking moves at the same pace as our bodies move. It's a very simple, clear thing—we can understand it. If I slow this down, everything else slows down."
  4. Share Your Values
    After Donna Helm-Yost committed to veganism in 2003, she continued to let family members bring a turkey to Christmas dinner, though she didn't eat it herself. Eventually, though, Helm-Yost, who is founder of the Karma Yoga Project (practicekindness.com) and creator of the DVD Flow and Yin: A Balanced Yoga Practice, told her family she was uncomfortable having meat in her home. "I feel better when I'm sticking to my values. Some relatives probably think I'm a little freaky, but they respect it. I'm not judgmental; I just think it's better for the planet and all beings," she says. "My brother is a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, and it was funny seeing him try our 'spring roast' vegetable proteins and grains. At first, he looked like he was going to die if he took a bite," she says. "The first year there was a little stress and apprehension when we didn't have turkey, but [now] we kind of laugh at our differences."
  5. Buy Less
    One dispiriting aspect of the holidays is the overwhelming focus on material consumption that pervades the season. How, then, to practice aparigraha (greedlessness) but still keep the spirit of giving? About 20 years ago, Anusara Yoga teacher Desiree Rumbaugh and her family started a Christmas Eve white elephant gift exchange: Each person wraps up something they own but are ready to give away and places it under the tree. Then everyone draws a number to determine the order for gift opening. Everyone has the option of "stealing" a previously opened gift or choosing a new one to unwrap. One of Rumbaugh's favorite memories is of Big Mouth Billy Bass: "I bought this wall-mounted, battery-operated plastic fish that sings 'Don't Worry, Be Happy' while flapping his tail," she says. "One year, I carefully wrapped up Big Mouth Billy and added him to the white elephant pile. Happily, he reappeared several years in a row, and we are always glad to see him again," she jokes. The reappearing fish is fun, and the white elephant exchange has transformed the holidays for Rumbaugh. "I enjoy the holidays so much more," she says. "I don't have to buy a single gift, and it's good for lots of laughs and great to get rid of things we no longer use or want."
  6. Give More
    Donate to charity instead of buying gifts. That's what Beth Torstrick, cofounder of Satya Yoga Inspired Jewelry, does with her extended family of 35. "We switched about five years ago because the gifts seemed excessive. We felt that the energy spent choosing semisuccessful gifts for adults would be much better put toward people who really need it." Her family's favorite charities have included the Salvation Army, the United Way, the Harlem Children's Zone, Childreach/Plan USA, and community churches. Last year's pick was the Cabbage Patch Settlement House in Torstrick's hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. When they do exchange presents, Torstrick's family is big on homemade gifts or those tied to family memories. "I ask for something sentimental. One Christmas my grandmother gave me her size 5 silver strappy dancing shoes that she wore dancing with my grandfather in the '30s," recalls Torstrick. "I was so touched. The shoes represented the love and connection my Nana and Paw Paw share and the type of romance I hoped to have one day—and that I now have!"
  7. Expect Less
    "I use the mantra Take what they can give to remind myself to relieve relatives of my unrealistic expectations of how they 'should' behave," says Diane Dillon, coauthor of Mommy Mantras: Affirmations and Insights to Keep You from Losing Your Mind. "I accept and embrace where they are and what they can share emotionally and physically. It helps me be open and forgiving of myself and others."
  8. Opt Out of Obligation
    An immediate remedy for stress is to stop busying yourself with activities that don't fulfill you. "I don't send out cards, I don't cook or bake cookies, I don't indulge in treats," says Desiree Rumbaugh. Rather, she enjoys every day by keeping up with her practice, staying healthy and balanced, and spending time with family and friends. "I neutralize the holidays. We have get-togethers and meals, but we don't make a humongous deal out of it. They're nice times to get together, but not obligation-filled."
  9. Offer Thanks
    A transformative intention is to simply be thankful. As Anusara Yoga teacher Sianna Sherman says, "Gratitude is a practice—it's the seed I plant at the beginning of the day. Throughout the day, it sprouts in ways I couldn't have foreseen." During the holidays, she consciously directs her gratitude toward family members. "The holidays bring up past remembrances, and we get knotted up when we get into the incredible speed of the holidays. As a child, I would retreat to my room and sometimes disconnect when the holidays got hectic. As I have melted my heart with yoga and gratitude, I find myself leaning into my family more and appreciating their immensely generous spirits. I say 'Today I'm grateful for my sister or mother or father' and put an image of that person inside my mind and my heart. With this practice, I am able to tap into a sweet place of dealing with the challenges that naturally arise over the holidays. Instead of retreating from the madness, I receive my family's love and realize that they've been loving me all along."
  10. Flex Your Mind
    Debora Wayne, an artist and yoga teacher in San Diego, made a shift in attitude and expectation: "I used to try to prove that I could do it all. I tried to outdo, overdo, top last year's event and gifts, and overextend," she says. "Just like in any yoga pose, if you overextend long enough, eventually the strain turns into real injury. Now I just let each year be different according to my life at the time. Only you know if you're pushing too hard by how you feel—that applies to your mat or your Christmas."
  11. Turn Up the Music
    All over the world, people come together to celebrate with song. You can go caroling in your neighborhood, enjoy a Sing It Yourself Handel's Messiah at the city opera house, or harmonize in private with a favorite CD. David Life is a fan of old Christmas albums, both classical and kitsch. "Some great ones are Burl Ives's Have a Holly Jolly Christmas; The Christmas Song, by Nat King Cole; and Christmas with Leontyne Price," he says. Or you can forget the standards and chant along with a kirtan CD or anything else you find uplifting. The point is to let go and be connected to and moved by the spirit of the music, if not the season.
  12. Act Kindly, Randomly
    "I take a moment to be loving to people as I go about my shopping," says Arthur Jeon, a yoga teacher in Los Angeles and the author of City Dharma: Keeping Your Cool in the Chaos. "We've got 20 gifts to buy, and we're in the gift-wrap line thinking, 'Hurry up. Wrap that gift! Look at how slow she is,' without taking the time to acknowledge the clerk, smile, offer a kind word, or even a 'Gosh, you're so busy—I don't know how you do it.' When you do take the time to really recognize and appreciate others, you come away feeling good that you've passed on some measure of compassion and gentleness, which is really the core of the holiday season, anyway. The core of Christmas is the celebration of the birth of a prophet's life, someone who taught love. So then make an effort to truly practice that."

Lorie Parch is a writer in Scottsdale, Arizona.