Happy Anniversary, Sanity!

pexels-photo.jpgThirteen years ago, I was locked up.

I was 24 years old in Austin, Texas. A bright, blossoming wounded made up girl-person flung far from the bleak overcast of depression or the jagged broken-record of anxiety. I was HIGH and flying ever higher. No one could stop me. I was a rainbow technicolor butterfly emerging from her chrysalis stupor. I was on fire, passionately delusional. I was all over town, dancing on tabletops. In and out of consciousnesses, enjoying nonstop religious experiences. I felt invincible and acted boldly. I was out of my mind. I was a puppet starlet drama queen going places: India, California, everywhere.

At the aptly named Flipnotics Coffeehouse on Barton Springs Road on April 16, 2005, the shit hit the fan. Long story short, I was taken away in handcuffs by the police to the psych ward, where they brought me back down to Earth with a thud and a plethora of prescriptions psychotropics, tranquilizers, chairs with straps and staff in white uniforms to do the strapping. Yet, in ten (long) days, I was released.

That was thirteen years ago.

These days, I am celebrating sanity, but more than that, I am celebrating life, freedom and yoga. I am grateful for all the people, places and lessons of those times in my tumultuous mid-twenties and since. I am welcoming everything, whatever may come, whether pleasure, success, tragedy or death.

I am celebrating my choice not to take the doctors’ orders and “just take two of these pills a day”. I am celebrating my choice to exit the box and settle well outside of it, surrounded by wildflowers, kittens, scattered toys, piles of books and notebooks, coffee trees, three volcanoes and a sparkling lake.

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Landing

On August 6, 2009, I boarded a plane in my hometown, Austin, Texas, and took a flight into the unknown. Destination: Guatemala. I was 29.

Ten years prior, the international travel bug had bitten. At age 19, prompted by my irrational fear that Y2K would cause global chaos and planes would fall out of the sky at the turn of the century, I’d flown to London to spend a semester abroad. I arrived at Gatwick; my two gigantic suitcases didn’t. A lesson in letting go. How I sobbed. I was so alone, on the other side of the pond, empty handed. Later I realized how lucky it was that I didn’t’ have to lug the luggage through the streets as I walked in frustrating circles searching for the big creaky Victorian house in Notting Hill Gate where I would live with a bevy of fellow college kids, mostly from the northeast US. Plus, I got money from the airline to go out and buy clothes.

Since there were two Michelles living in the house, some of the guys took to calling me “Texas.” Yankees, I called them. I took the tube, studied art and architecture, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes. We went out for Halloween and I was so mortified to be on the tube with these rowdy, drunken Americans, my roommates. I was dressed up as a zebra but nowhere near drunk enough. I spent hours one long November day at a recording studio listening to Nik, my slightly-older British crush, and his band sing “In-Between Days”, over and over and over again, for a Cure tribute album. The one night I stayed out with him until after the tube stopped running, I slept at Nik’s place in north London. Zero romance occurred, and I was so disappointed. I visited Dublin, Barcelona and Paris for long weekends. Life was not as glamorous as it sounded, though. I was only 19 and largely a clueless, privileged American girl.

Living in London in the fall of 1999 was my coming of age. My first stab at “adulting”. Learning to cook actual meals. Managing my life abroad, alone. When I went back to work in Austin post-London, my good friend and boss at the ad agency noted how much self-confidence I had grown through the experience. I held myself differently, she said.

Back to the summer of 2009. I had a perfectly happy life in Austin, Texas, seriously. I was single and mingling. I’d become a school teacher three years prior, having left my first career in advertising. On a whim, I went to an international teaching job fair in Bethesda, Maryland in late June 2009 and landed a job in Guatemala. I chose it over Brazil for its proximity and Spanish language (although Portuguese is beautiful, I’m not inclined to learn languages and my brain can only seem to handle English, Spanish and the handful of Sanskrit and Kaqchikel Maya words and phrases I know). I chose the job in Guatemala, despite the fact that I became violently ill immediately upon accepting. Immediately. My body broke out in hives and my stomach ached and I threw up. I knew then that I had made the right decision.

For the next six weeks, I packed up my life: checked off endless to-do lists, condensed my funky little south Austin cottage into two 50-pound suitcases and stored the rest at my folks’ house. I brought along with me my best fur friend, a four-pound black and white teacup Chihuahua named Lucy. I left behind a loving community, two cats, a cottage, a mortgage, a car, a lot of material possessions, and my comfort zone.

There was turbulence on the flight as we approached our landing. When the plane touched down in Guatemala, all the passengers burst into applause, and I burst into silent tears laden with both trepidation and joy.

In retrospect, it seems as though I was fleeing, escaping from something when I left home. If so, I really wasn’t aware of it at the moment of departure. I didn’t leave home because I was disillusioned. I was rather happy. Perhaps too content, even. Comfortable. I wasn’t running away from anything, I was running toward something different. For the sake of shaking it up. Nothing was keeping me in Austin: I hadn’t had a meaningful relationship last more than a few months, much less come anywhere close to finding a partner with whom I’d want to share my life. My job was good but I had been at the same school for three years and was getting bored. Spending three weeks in Mexico in the summer of 2007 for a Spanish immersion had planted the seed. I could do this; I could live here.

Soon after arriving in Central America, I had a gut feeling that this would become my lifestyle. I didn’t know whether I’d stay in Guatemala after my initial two-year contract at the school was up, or try my luck in another Latin American country, or maybe take a leap and move to Asia or Africa like so many of my teacher friends. But I felt pretty certain that I wouldn’t be returning to reside in the States for a long time, if ever.

I was immediately free—the opposite of busy. I was liberated. Even in an oppressively dangerous, dirty and foreign city, I was free. I’d been busy in Austin. Lots of work, both during and after school hours, family visits, dinner parties, chores, errands, grocery shopping. Suddenly, I had no obligations (other than work, and my job was a lot less demanding than it had been in Texas), no plans and no expectations.

Moving to Lake Atitlan in the middle of 2012 was another total rebirth. If happiness is a place, that place, for me, is right here: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. It is my chosen home, where I belong. Its powerful magic magnet drew me here to live, as permanently as permanent can be, in the middle of 2012. Life has unfolded and consciousness expanded in wonderful and unexpected ways ever since. Having my daughter Jade has been the greatest blessing. I’m grateful to witness her growing up here in this natural paradise, far from the hustle and bustle and polluted culture of city life. Being in a stable, committed relationship with a loving partner is a revelation.

In front of me, I see a striped hammock. I see the patio roof covered in morning dew. I see coffee trees down below, their green leaves verdant, their lime green berries silently growing plump. In November, they will turn red and be ready to harvest. I see two redheaded woodpeckers in one of the shade trees, trying to find a place to peck and make a hole for their new home, or maybe just looking for breakfast. I see a hummingbird pass by in a blur, buzzing like a bumblebee.

There is the grandmother and grandfather lake, calm and steady. There are the three silent massive volcanoes, shrouded in light foggy cloud coverage, beaming their incredible staying power out upon us. There’s the woodpecker again, directly in front of where I sit on my meditation pillow and bolster. The bolster I brought with me from Austin in my suitcase is now faded by the sun and years but it’s still useful. It’s one of the few things I still have from the initial luggage. Maybe the only thing? I guess the black polka dot dress I had too, and maybe a few other garments. Not much has lasted. Things come and go. Disposable possessions.

I hear the first boat, its motor whirring, creating waves. More hummingbird wings flapping. One small hummingbird about the size of my thumb sits for a brief five-second repose on a thin branch, her Pinocchio nose jutting out in front of her. Actually, buzzingbird or chatteringbird would be a more apt name. They don’t really hum.

This morning meditation is happiness. The inner peace and happiness I feel beneath all the other emotions that visit each day are there thanks to years of devoted practice. I know, deep down, no matter what happens, peace and presence are available. Joy and sadness, pleasure and pain, attachment and aversion are inevitable. What is “evitable” is the grasping, the constant seeking of entertainment in its ubiquitous forms, with its insidious way of pulling us away from this specific moment of life, here and now.

Perhaps I have misconstrued the lake to be sacred. To be somehow more spiritual, pure and blissful than other geographic locations. It’s just because I have known more happiness here than anywhere else I’ve lived. Could I be this pleased residing anywhere else? This lake is sacred to me. So is the cozy bedroom where I first learned yoga as a young teen in a suburb in the hill country of central Texas. So is this moment, regardless of location. This life is a gift; every breath, a miracle.

May all beings be happy and free.

Clear Lens Moments

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It was one of those days when the air was washed and polished like a lens. Everything was crisp and clear. Springtime in California.

I could see each individual leaf shimmering on the tree and was simultaneously taking in the whole tree in its magnificent glory. The colors were more vivid, the wind more meaningful, each breath poignant.

As I drove away from Green Gulch Farm, I felt a natural high like none other. Each moment, whatever it contained, was perfect, abundant, simple and miraculous. It wasn’t until leaving the Zen center grounds after my five-day personal retreat that I realized how much more mindful I had become. I was ultra-sensitive to my surroundings, noticing the details, savoring the natural beauty all around me, more embodied in my body than maybe ever before.

This blissful state of heightened awareness lasted for a good week or two. That was April, 2004. Now, with the gift of retrospect, I can pinpoint a few other moments in the 13+ subsequent years in which my formal practice seeped silently, secretively into my everyday life. Tiny moments of illumination. That time in my bedroom in Guate when I was doing a standing backbend and the epiphany hit me. A voice that spoke from deep within said, “Move to the lake.” I cried tears of sudden joy, because I knew then that Lake Atitlan was where I was meant to be.

Another clear lens moment occurred January 6, 2013, as I was sitting on a hospital bed, listening to Across the Universe on repeat on my headphones, having taken the doctor’s orders to calm down so that he could perform the unexpected c-section. Jai Guru Deva, Aum…. nothing’s gonna change my world/nothing’s gonna change my world. Limitless undying love that shines around me like a million suns… I shifted from fear-fueled sobs to a quiet, tranquil state. When I saw my daughter’s little face and perfect head full of dark brown hair, my mind was empty of anything but love (and morphine of course; thank you, epidural!).

The air was washed and polished like a lens, too, one midsummer’s day in 2001. I was sailing on Lake Travis with my family. I could see the water and sky, could perceive the spectacular sunset and feel that I should be appreciating its beauty and the gift of my life, but depression absolutely blocked any absorption of gratitude, happiness or even okay-ness. Depression distorted the lens, making everything blurry and hopeless.

My most recent clear-lens experiences have been less monumental, more everyday. The little moments, the frequent pauses when I can sit still, take a sip of tea, look around and soak in the beauty. The gorgeousness of the lake and volcanoes never fails to astound me. I can even (sometimes) see the beauty in the disarray in which our household is often found. The stuffed animals lined up in the hammock, the pile of storybooks by Jade’s bed, the muddy paw prints our dog leaves on the wooden planks of the patio.

I am eternally grateful to Guatemala, every human and animal, stone and flower, fire and body of water that has crossed my path in my time here. The breeze has cleansed the air and polished my lens in such wonderfully unexpected ways.

Collected Writings 2010-2017

51hV0yux+mLMoving abroad eight years ago was a rebirth for me.

The choice to uproot from my home country, the United States of America, and plant new seeds in my host country, Guatemala, suddenly changed my whole life and lifestyle.

I was bestowed with the best gift of all: time. I used my newfound abundance of this magical time and mental space to focus on my personal yoga and meditation practice—and to hone my writing skills. I started this very blog on WordPress in early 2010. In October of that year, I crossed my fingers and submitted my very first article for publication on Elephant Journal. (I’m so grateful that they accepted it and hundreds more since!)

Over the years, I’ve maintained my passion for yoga and writing, though of course both practices have fluctuated over time and with the influence of life, work, partnership, parenthood and all the little moments that make up our days.

I’m delighted to present my latest e-book offering: The Best of Yoga Freedom. These collected blog posts and essays from the past seven years deal with everything from developing and deepening spiritual practice to stories of shame and sexual healing to heart advice on long-term partnerships and healthy, simple lifestyle choices. If you’re new to this site, this is an ideal place to begin.

The book is available on Amazon/Kindle. If you would be interested in reading and writing a review, please connect with me and I will gladly send you a free copy.

Thank you for reading!

{Get your copy of The Best of Yoga Freedom}

The Forest Cure

Why I’m Anti Antidepressants

Many years ago, I sat on the couch of a stern psychiatrist who informed me that I needed to take prescription psychotropic pills every day for the rest of my life.

That didn’t sit well with me.

But, I was 21, and facing the moment-to-moment reality of horrible depression during every waking moment of my “real” adult life.

I learned that depression is anger turned inward. Self-blame exacerbates a mentality in despair. For me, depression was like endless fields of gray. I only wanted to sleep or die. I was unable to hope and had zero desire to do anything but lie in bed. It was like being stuck in a huge, ugly glob of what’s-the-point! 

Life was drained of all color, fun, and love.

I chose to take the pills. I was told they would take a couple of weeks to kick in, and they did—like clockwork. My ability to function in the world was restored. Once I felt better, I’d stop taking the meds. Then, of course, I’d feel bad again, dragged down into the quicksand of darkness.

So, I’d start back up again with my prescription refills and they’d take longer to take effect, since my brain was building up a resistance. This carried on for about four years, until one day, all the fireworks exploded in my mind and I was catapulted from the lows of cyclical depression to the rapid fire “high-high-high” of mania.

That’s when I was committed for 10 days to the state psychiatric hospital and was prescribed lithium for life.

Teaching yoga at a fitness center the following year, I struck up a conversation with a woman after class about mental health and prescription drugs. She urged me to read up on lithium and its detrimental effects, and gave me a book on the topic. My mom and brother had both been diagnosed with bipolar prior to me, at age 40 and 14, respectively. I was 24 when my manic side emerged, although, in retrospect, it was more like popping topless out of a cake than a gradual emergence of symptoms.

There is the reality that everyone’s brain chemistry is different and influenced by genetic factors outside of our control, and yet our brain chemistry is also affected by our lifestyle and behavior choices. After a few years of taking lithium religiously, I felt ready to phase it out of my system and did so under the care of a qualified psychiatrist—a doctor not much older than me—also named Michelle. She helped me phase it out, and it’s been eight years now with no relapses.

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A Long-Awaited Dream Come True

villa-sumaya_daniel-lopez-perez197Eight summers ago, when I was packing up my life and readying to move to Guatemala, sight unseen, a dear Austin yoga teacher colleague, Charles MacInerney, wrote me a nice letter recommending that I visit Villa Sumaya, a yoga retreat center on Lake Atitlan where he’d taught several yoga retreats.

Up until then, I’d never heard of this majestic lake.

I moved to Guatemala City in August, 2009. My first trip to the lake was for the American Thanksgiving weekend. I stayed with a bunch of teacher friends at a colorful chalet outside Panajachel, on the road to Santa Catarina. I would, four years later, find myself passing that house daily, when my family lived twenty minutes outside Pana.

My second trip to the lake was in January 2010 with my teaching buddy Kat. We escaped the city on the chicken bus, found our way to Pana, and then crossed the lake to Santiago. We stayed only one or two nights at the lush Posada de Santiago, but it felt like a joyful eternity, a portal into an alternate universe, light years from the dirty, loud, dangerous capital city where we lived and worked. We swung in hammocks, soaked in the hot tub, sweated in the sauna and dove into the cold lake. In less than 48 hours, we were transformed. I began my ongoing love affair with Santiago Atitlan, though life has led me to live in Pasajcap, on the north shore instead of the southern one, 20 minutes walk outside the hippie haven of San Marcos La Laguna. Nowadays, I journey over to Santiago about once a week, to teach yoga in the same gardens at the same Posada and to take my daughter to the most adorable preschool on the planet.

Along with my friend, Ash Fletcher, the wild woman who spurred me to start leading weekend yoga retreats, because we led them together, I toured Villa Sumaya, sometime in mid-2010. I remember being very impressed by its beauty and in awe of the idea of bringing retreat groups there. Villa Sumaya is luxurious, especially by lake standards, and its prices are set to U.S. standards, meaning most people who live here in Guatemala can’t afford it. We stuck to teaching our two and three night retreats at more budget locales, lovely in themselves, such as La Paz in San Marcos and Earth Lodge outside of Antigua. I’ve been doing it ever since, several times a year. Always weekends. Always amazing.

A few months after leaving my decade-long career in education/school teaching in early 2015, I spotted a flier for a job at Villa Sumaya. Long story short, I got the job and have been working as the retreat and reservations coordinator there ever since. I currently work on site two days of the week and from home the rest of the time. It’s a good job, and I am grateful for it. I can’t say I love managing the logistical details of retreats as much as I love teaching yoga and facilitating retreats, but now these two skill sets are coming together and enabling me to do both at the same time.

Today, a long-awaited dream of mine is coming true. I am going to be leading a week-long yoga retreat, at Villa Sumaya no less! It’s a very small group of women coming together, but it is happening. This week will be a model for potential future weeks. This retreat, for me, is a personal revolution and very much a full circle moment.

There is always stress in life, always struggles and challenges to deal with. I do not want to imply that by realizing this dream, I am enlightened or my life is perfect.

At the same time, ever since I set foot in Guatemala, I have chosen and am continuing to choose the path of beauty. The choices have led to this path, for me, at this magical lake, in this mystical Mayan heartland. To stay on the path, wherever it leads us, we must renew our vows to do so, day by day, moment to moment.

Neutral Holiday Greetings to You!

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We don’t celebrate Halloween.

If I eat a Thanksgiving meal on the 4th Thursday in November, it’s only because I’m willing to fork over $20 (in local Guatemalan currency) in exchange for carbs, gravy and the company of my compatriots.

Someone asked me recently if my child is excited for Christmas. My daughter doesn’t even know who Santa is. She doesn’t know what Christmas is.

She doesn’t know who Jesus is. She is almost four years old, and we have consciously chosen not to indoctrinate her with religion, except of course dharma yoga. Which isn’t a religion. (Or is it?)

It’s not really been a conscious choice, this non-celebration of Christmas. It’s more of a choice to celebrate everyday life. I find I do not miss the holiday pop music in the least.

The life I live now is drastically different than the life I lived growing up, or even the life I was living ten years ago in Austin, Texas.

Not better or worse, just different.

The trees are my Christmas trees. The stars at night provide enough twinkle and the moon enough light for evening strolls. The present moment with my family is the real gift, and we feel no compulsion to buy things and wrap them in pretty paper and give them to each other on December 25. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

So, in conclusion:

Merry Today! And a happy new Now!

There is a lot of bad news out there. And then there’s the constant stream of information, useless and useful knowledge, the barrage of noise with the occasional bursts of beautiful music. May we choose carefully that which we are feeding our bodies, our minds and our spirit. May we give and receive love freely. May all beings be happy, safe, healthy and at ease.

Winds of Change

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Point Arena Lighthouse  Mendocino County  California USA

It’s 8 Iq today. Iq is the Mayan sign of wind.

There is a gentle breeze or none right now in the living room. I am still, settled, in Sacramento. The sacrament. The sacred mundane. Waking up in a quiet house full of relatives asleep. Soon enough the coffee will be brewing, the people chattering, retiree household bustle. Waking up in a familiar, cozy place.

Tomorrow, we’ll be waking up on a train. Tonight, we take the night train north, northwest. The Oregon Trail. To a bend in the river and a port by the sea. Then a jet engine propels us yet further, all the way to Canada. The Columbia with a U, of the British variety. To the mountains. Belly rumbling to the sound of the now-brewing coffee, in anticipation.

Saying farewell to my parents, my partner and embarking on a mami-hija adventure for the next couple of weeks of catching up with beloved old friends in the Pacific Northwest until our return home to the nest by the lake in the south.

We are blowing in the wind, going with the flow, making plans and showing up, early or late or changing the plans or dropping the plans. Breathing the breath of life. Remembering gratitude, gratitude, love, kindness, compassion, gratitude again.

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Kite surfer, California Coast