Just a friendly reminder…

My blog has relocated to a self-hosted domain, www.fionalandrews.info. I’ve been up to some exciting stuff, including travelling Peru and living in India and becoming a 500 hour Ashtanga yoga teacher! 

Please, if you would like to stay in touch feel free to add yourself to my mailing list- I send less than one email each month and never give your address to anyone.

And here are a few of my latest blog posts, for your perusal :)

From Exhaustion to Tiredness to Complete and Utter Excitement

Amma’s Darshan: My Encounter with the Hugging Saint

A weekend at an ashram with Amma, the Hugging Saint

From Words to Sounds to Silence: a Buddhist Meditation

A Day in the Life of a Yogi in India

10 Things to Get You Through 32 Hours of Travelling

Namaste,

Fiona

Death is not Pain

Like a lot of my family, I have spent the last few days dreading April 20th. Wondering how am I going to get through, what am I going to do, how am I going to cope.

4x60000076AIt’s funny how we are conditioned to remember things. I will probably always remember this day as the day my dad died – but despite all my expectations, I have not yet felt any pain on this day. Even the first time three years ago there was no pain – just numbness (and alarm, as my mother’s black eye proved – sorry, mum). Last year I was lucky enough to be with someone who spent the entire day having fun with me. But this year, I was faced with spending the whole day at a yoga studio (meditative by nature) and then the evening in the empty house as my mum and my brother are at Penn State. I was expecting to wake up in a terrible mood, fumble through my teaching, come home, and binge on Indian food while watching Monty Python and old home videos…

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Surrender

Hi everyone! Just a quick note, I am migrating my blog to my website, found at http://www.fionalandrews.info. You can still subscribe there, or follow me on Facebook/Twitter to stay in touch and up-to-date. Thanks for reading :)

sur·ren·der
/səˈrendər/
Verb
Cease resistance to an enemy or opponent and submit to their authority.

A word we hear a lot in yoga is “surrender.” I’m fairly type-A: very driven, often ambitious, hard-working, frequently stubborn, and of the firm believe that if I work at it enough, I can have it all. Needless to say, “surrendering” is not an easy concept for me. But there are two sides to this dilemma, because there is a very fine line between surrendering what you cannot control and becoming complacent…
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Certainty

 

Certainty is a fascinating notion because no matter how sure you are, there’s always a chance something else will happen simply due to the chaotic nature of the universe.  By definition, the most certainty you can ever have is the thing you control the most: I choose to define that as inner wisdom, essence, what makes us who we are. It will undoubtedly be questioned under duress but when cultivated, it’s the most reliable principle we have – even if you define yourself as the most chaotic factor in the equation you can at least be relied upon to be chaotic.  It’s no secret that I’m fairly erratic in my lifestyle, but I still find comfort in it.

Most people who don’t have many certainties are early on the path of discovering who they really are, but we also encounter people who are overly certain – they don’t have many certainties, but they also don’t have many uncertainties (perhaps those who define certainty as having a job and other things in the world they feel they can rely upon). Logically this would mean they are closing themselves off from becoming more evolved beings, but living on a single level with complete certainty of who they are is a perfectly valid choice.

We are born with characteristics to discover about ourselves – if we don’t like them then we can endeavor to change them or we can learn to live with them.  We also have spaces which can be filled with certainties as we establish them.  Because certainties are consciously made decisions, they define us more than characteristics do.  But once we have answered one question with a certainty, we create spaces for many more – so really, the people with the most certainties are also the people who are the least certain.

Why I Do Bizarre Things (Why Not)

snow feetI know I have already written about why I like to spend my life barefoot, but running around barefoot is only one of many things I do that the general public seems to find strange, closely followed by prolific tree-climbing and excessive marmite consumption.

It has never occurred to me not to do exactly what I want to.  I don’t ignore my responsibilities or run around pillaging – I just mean that if I think something looks fun or seems like a good idea, I do it.  Being barefoot is a good example because it’s something largely frowned upon by society.  As I’ve said before – I get mixed reactions including anything from thumbs-up to weird looks and occasional rudeness.  But that never really made me want to put on a pair of shoes.  I don’t like shoes, so I don’t wear them.  Fin.  Another example is my penchant for travel.  Most people I encounter in the US find me to be extraordinarily well-travelled, but to be honest I never really put much thought into it.  Really, what usually happens is a thought like “Wow, I would love to go to an awesome new place” closely followed by a visit to kayak.com and a few weeks later, another stamp on my passport.  Assuming you have some sort of income, don’t have to lug a bunch of kids with you, and aren’t trying to go somewhere with strict visa procedures, yes, travelling really is that easy.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why I don’t often find people who choose to live life in a similar fashion.  Sure, I meet those who have similar interests or don’t mind being a bit outlandish – but it’s extremely rare to come across someone who will randomly do anything just because why not.  

But Fiona,” they all say, “Why not is not a reason to do something.”

And then I ask, “Why not?”

And there’s no answer.

Because “Why not” is not a question.  It is the answer.

Could you imagine if we only did things for which there is a specific reason?  We would eat when we were hungry, sleep when we were tired, and do nothing else.  If we assumed some sort of sentience, then perhaps we would also procreate when the need struck and occasionally seek out human companionship.  Now I know we all have jobs and occasional doctor’s appointments, but think- when was the last time you did something that did not fall into one of those categories?   Does it ever seem like you do other things like watch TV and go on the Internet just to waste time between doing those four things?  That’s called complacency.  And it’s killing us.

Look, I’m not some crazy hippie living in a tree with no job or cares in the world.  I have a demanding full-time job and lots of little things going wrong in my life, just like we all do.  I’m not saying we should all shirk our responsibilities and dance around in the meadows making daisy chains (but that is an open invitation, good for anyone who shows up on my doorstep).  I’m just pointing out that we, as a human race, are pretty boring.

People often make pop culture references and upon seeing my blank stare, accuse me of living in a cave.  But did you know there are flying machines that can take you to faraway places in just a few hours?  Did you know that on the Internet, there are things to read and learn about in addition to cat videos and photos of your exes?  Did you know that if you just go outside for a walk, you’ll learn something new about yourself?  People seem so shocked to hear little things like “Oh, I went and got lost in the woods this weekend”  or, “Yeah, I’ve been to India” that I definitely don’t think I am the one living in a cave.  

So if there’s something you want to do, that you think will make you happy even just for an instant, why aren’t you doing it?   You don’t have to take off for Mongolia – just do something that never occurred to you before.  Jump in a puddle.  Read a book that looks way too long.  Try belly dancing.  Fly by the seat of your pants; be spontaneous; do something just because you can’t think of a reason not to, and find energy in it.  Don’t live outside your comfort zone – expand your comfort zone to include things that are exciting and unusual.  Get out of your cave and interact with the world.  You don’t need a reason.

Why Skipping New Year’s Resolutions is a Great Decision

…And no, the answer is not “so I can keep making bad decisions all year.”

First of all, I love everything about resolutions.  Resolving to do something means you have made a decision to challenge yourself.  Being resolute means you believe in something strongly.  If you have resolved a problem, you have accomplished something.  All of these are wonderful, positive things.  

So why do we only do it once a year?  It’s not that I am opposed to deciding to change your life on the first of January each year.  I’m opposed to not trying to change your life for the better on every day of each year.  The implication of New Year’s resolutions is that you only make them once each year – and that will make for a very static 365.25 days.  

New Year’s is a pretty arbitrary time to make a resolution – there’s no change in season, nothing exciting really happens for any time in the foreseeable future, and most cultures celebrate a New Year on day just as random as ours.  Any psychologist, life coach, businessperson, or generally successful human will tell you that in order to successfully impact a change on your life, you need an incentive.  Unless you really like the number 14, changing your calendar is a pretty poor one.  Also, a year is a really long time to enact most resolutions – really, you’re setting yourself up to procrastinate.  And lastly, making New Year’s resolutions is such a traditional thing to do that most people don’t even put any thought into it, much less a plan (another thing you need in order to succeed at just about anything, by the way).  

I’m not saying New Year’s Eve isn’t a great time for some reflection – but any time is a great time for reflection, and ideally it would happen more than once each year.  Like everyone else, I lead a busy life and often I need something to remind me to stop for a minute and think of how far I’ve come – and how far I still have to go.  Usually that happens when someone asks me for my “professional opinion” (or I find myself on a plane towards New Jersey), but if looking at the calendar and noticing it’s the 31st December is your motivation then that’s great too.  

Similarly, you should make resolutions any time you feel your life needs a change. I make resolutions on a daily basis, and I tend to be pretty successful with them.  My most successful resolution was made a few years ago.  On 8 February 2009 I decided I was going to go to the gym every day – and I kid you not, unless it was closed or I was off travelling the far corners of the world, I have been to the gym every single day since then (even a gaping wound in my ankle didn’t stop me from a gentle yoga practice).  Sure, the date is just as arbitrary as 1 January, but something that day got me to make that decision and stick with it.  That is a resolution that happened to stay  -  but not all resolutions should.  

As I mentioned before, sticking with one idea for 365 days would make for a static year.  Making a decision with the intent of keeping it for a full year is setting yourself up for failure not only because a year is a long time, but because if your life changes and your resolution is no longer relevant, you will see it as a failure.  I became a vegan about a year ago because I thought it would make my singing voice clearer – sort of important for someone studying to be a professional vocalist.  It was great, and it worked while I was living alone and always cooking for myself.  But now that my situation is different, it’s no longer conducive to my lifestyle.  Had I said “I am never going to eat anything with milk ever again,” I would be feeling pretty down on myself. New Year’s resolutions simply do not allow for the flexibility we need in our lives.

On that note, I would like to wish you all a wonderful, prosperous year and beyond.  I hope you skip the guilt-ridden New Year’s resolutions and instead choose to spend some time reflecting on everything you have and have yet to accomplish :)

Working Backwards

So for those of you who still remember me after my increasingly long hiatuses, hello again and thanks for sticking around despite my perennial absence…inspiration is frequent but free time is not, as I am sure you are all well aware.

I began my yoga teacher training (well, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it actually began long ago, but now I am officially enrolled in a 200-hour course) at Starseed Yoga in September, and it has brought a great deal of sanity to my topsy-turvy life.  The teachers are knowledgable and supportive, and everyone in the studio is always so very friendly.  As a result of teacher training and in preparation for when I teach more classes on my own, I have found myself in a few beginner classes both at Starseed and at the studio nearer my home – and let me tell you, they are HARD.

As someone who always welcomes a challenge, I do not respond well to “easing into” things.  My usual modus operandi is to jump in not with both feet but headfirst, and wait to find out how deep the water is until I’m way underneath it, gazing back up trying to see the surface, awkwardly getting my nostrils full of water, and wondering how on earth I got there.  I always make it back up to the top, but sometimes it’s a struggle and I often swallow a lot more disgusting pool water than was really necessary.  However, I do think it makes me stronger and it definitely makes me appreciate just how difficult the jump and the ensuing battle with the basic laws of physics was.

Example: music.  My parents made me take piano lessons for a few years as a child, but I hated practicing scales and “hands separately” so I quit.  In high school I resumed playing of my own volition, but I jumped right in without a teacher, devouring music that was way too hard for me but thoroughly enjoying it.  I continued on to study music at university, people pay me to do it, and now one might even go so far as to call me a professional musician.  However, even now my main strength is not in performing perfectly rehearsed sonatas with an exquisite touch, or making my fingers dance over the keys to express delightful Romantic motives.  I have on occasion been able to do such things – but what I’m really good at is sightreading.  In other words, jumping behind a piano at a moment’s notice and playing whatever is thrown in front of me with the only delay being the time it takes me to check the key signature – and if there’s a soprano or someone on a podium waving his arms about who I need to be following, so much the better.  I can get through just about any piece of music in this situation- it is not always pretty, but each time I plough through something I’ve never seen before, I get better at it and in turn, being a musician.  Once I get through a piece once in this frenzied manner, it is a bit easier for me to go back to the beginning and practice it properly because I have an idea of the broader ideas behind it.  I can go through and work technical things like tricky fingerings and focus on artistic ideas, like a sensible person would have done from the beginning.  [Side note: I am not always a sensible person.]

My introduction to yoga was similar.  The first class I took at age 13 was a beginner class which my mum dragged me to.  I am not sure what I expected and my memory of the occasion is a bit foggy, but I remember thinking “these poses are too easy, I’m not getting a workout, and I am too frustrated by this arm-waving nonsense to be relaxed.”  I did not attend another class until I was 18.  This class was taught by Melissa, who to this day is one of my favorite teachers, and it was a modified Ashtanga Vinyasa class.  I was sweating after the first sun salutation, the postures had many variations to keep me challenged, and I was too focused on not falling over to think about anything other than the current moment.  Of course, my alignment must have been horrendous and while it was certainly a meditative practice, somewhere along the line I missed the part about yoga being kind to the body.  In the following months I twisted and jumped and back-bended and head-stood – in other words, I did anything but “ease in.”  I know I only got away with this because I am young, strong, and healthy – but if I hadn’t gotten into yoga this way, I know I wouldn’t have at all.  I needed the challenges, both physical and mental, to stay present and interested.  I needed to know what I was working towards.

So a few weeks ago, when I mentally prepared myself for an hour of boredom and walked into a beginner class, I got exactly what I expected: very basic postures held for a very long time, and lots of focus on alignment and breathing.  However, rather than finding the postures frustratingly easy and boring, I found it refreshing to slow down and focus on tweaking each asana to make it work better.  This is something so often overlooked in vinyasa and other flow classes, yet something that is so crucial.  But at the same time, I think it is an aspect of yoga many beginners do not fully appreciate.  It took me many months to understand the concepts of “active” limbs, opening chakras, and directing prana to specific areas, and to recognize the huge changes that subtle movements could bring to a posture.  As such, I see many beginners with slumped shoulders and shallow breathing who don’t understand teachers’ instructions to adjust, and view yoga as simply “gentle stretching”  rather than the mentally and physically challenging eight-limbed practice that true yogis delve into on a daily basis.

I realise that generally speaking, my sense of logic is unconventional and perhaps my headlong approach isn’t right for everyone.  I’m certainly not suggesting that beginner classes be saved only for advanced students, or that people new to yoga be thrown into physically taxing Ashtanga classes.  But once in awhile, jumping into something headfirst may make you a stronger person and offer you a dose of perspective.  And those of us who are experienced in our craft, practice, or profession can always benefit from taking a few steps back, treating ourselves like beginners, and doing things in a way we are not accustomed to.

Mementos

I have a very strong aversion to clutter.  I frequently assess everything I own and chuck large portions of it into a charity bin.  Why I do this I couldn’t tell you; I admit that it is indeed a bizarre habit especially in an American culture where things define who you are and having more always seems to be better.  If I had to guess, I would say this proclivity is rooted in the notion that I like to be ready to flee the country or make a major life change at any given moment, and having to choose which things to bring would slow me down immensely.  I mean seriously, I have my passport with me at all times and if you say “let’s go to Ecuador right now” I would not hesitate to get on the next plane out of Newark- I’ve done it before and I wouldn’t think twice before doing it again.

But I digress.

Today, I was enlisted by my mum to assist with de-cluttering on a massive scale in our attic.  She had attempted this before but could never decide what to get rid of- however after about an hour I had torn through half the place leaving about a dozen big black rubbish bags in my wake.  Clearly, it is not difficult for me to throw away things that “have memories.”

Think about that.  “Things that have memories.”  Isn’t that a strange concept?  Of course things don’t have memories.  People have memories, but because our minds are so full of other mundane nonsense, we forget them.  To try to avoid forgetting our experiences, we trap them inside things. A ticket stub from a concert reminds us of great music; a dried corsage brings memories of prom weekend.

Three thoughts on this: First, if something was that memorable, how could you possibly forget it?  Perhaps it wouldn’t be in the front of your mind often, but the memory of an amazing experience should be burned into your mind.  Second, how often do you dig through your stuff to go through mementos and reminisce, and lastly does it make you happy?  Obviously I speak only for myself, but when I used to go through boxes of old stuff, it usually made me sad to think of times gone by rather than happy to think of good things that happened.  After I realised this, I went through my then-sizable collection of random stuff that evoked memories and instantly weeded out any that didn’t make me remember something positively delightful.  All I was left with were some old student IDs that showed the amusing progression of the enormous amount of hair I’ve cultivated on my head, a dog chain that I used to wear all throughout high school, and one of my dad’s old shirts.  I kept them because it seemed right, but I can honestly say that even these items I don’t think I would miss.

It may seem foolish to try to forget anything negative that happened, but we’re not really defined by them, are we?  We’re defined by how things that transpired resulted in our developing as humans.  We can’t control what happens, but we control how we process it- and going back to dwell on and re-process events will rarely change anything.  I find that happy memories stick with me regardless of whether or not I have physical evidence of them.  And even better, they get evoked unexpectedly by random events- it’s more common for me to hear a song that reminds me of a really fun night I had or to smell something that reminds me of a special person than for me to go digging through a box yearning for memories of days gone by.

To me, the ideal human condition involves total lack of attachment to physical things and the ability to navigate the world without any baggage.  Our concrete past doesn’t have nearly as much bearing on who we are as people as what we learned from it does.  Memories are nice, but they’re little more than an animal instinct- simply put, even a dog can remember being fed and associate its food bowl with mealtime.  Our true advantage as humans is our ability to remember that we liked Indian food last time we tried it, and to find a new restaurant with similar cuisine; to process the past in a way that allows us to gain a greater understanding of the world we live in- why waste time re-learning things you’ve already done through a box of old junk?

Marketing is Improving the Human Race

Wow, amazing how six weeks can fly by and still feel like an eternity- for better or for worse.  You’ve probably noticed I’ve been rather neglectful of this project; a main part of my job now is blogging every day so by the time I get home I’m a bit tired of staring at a computer putting thoughts together.  If you’re a marketing/technology/new media type, you may find my company’s blog interesting; if you’re not, I apologise for the shameless plug ;)

Anyway, I was thinking about my job recently, as one is prone to do when spending 40+ hours a week in any given place, and I was trying to reason with myself about working in marketing.  As someone who routinely goes through phases of moderate asceticism and hates mindless consumption, trying to convince people that they need to go out and buy things isn’t really aligned with my values.  But then I realised that marketing really isn’t about that anymore-yes, I know this sounds like denial- but bear with me.

There was a time when marketing and advertising was about reaching everyone and trying to attract the masses to your product and brand a la Mad Men.  But that’s simply not the state of the world anymore- now, consumers and people in general want to be understood.  We’re not loyal to brands the way our parents and grandparents were; we don’t necessarily buy things because everyone else has them or they’re the most expensive or we see a compelling advertisement on television.  We consume to express who we are.  We want to be courted by brands that identify with our values, to find products that align with our personalities.  With the prevalence of social media, we are all our own brand and we take care to project ourselves in a specific way.  How many times have you been in a situation and thought very carefully about how best to tweet about it?  How many times have you taken a photograph with the express purpose of putting it on Facebook?  Whether consciously or not, we all run very careful PR for ourselves- from each Facebook status to the beverages we consume.  If I drink Starbucks, what does that say about me as opposed to someone who drinks organic fair-trade green tea?

I know this sounds like a bit of a departure from my usual “leave all your worldly possessions and live in a tree eating berries and nuts” ranting.  It is- and rest assured, there is still nothing I would love more than to leave all my worldly possessions and live in a tree eating berries and nuts- but that’s not the world we live in today.  People who do that eventually get in trouble for tax evasion.  I maintain that it’s important to stay in touch with nature and journey on your individual path to enlightenment, but it’s also irresponsible to forget that the earth is an ecosystem full of people.  You’re here for a reason, and if you don’t participate in the massive world around you it’s going to be mighty difficult for you to figure out what your dharma is.

But I digress.  Anyway, identity is the type of thing that marketers think of these days.  We’re not trying to reach everyone- we’re trying to reach the correct people.  Because of the colossal amount of data available to us- through traditional demographics as well as digital media- we can target better than ever so rather than being bombarded by noise, you’re only found by the people you want to be found by.  Rather than going out and consuming mindlessly, we’re learning to consume in a way that identifies who we are- for example, instead of going and buying a brand of toilet paper simply because I saw a nationally run commercial for it, I would choose a lesser known but more eco-friendly brand because by placing their message in the correct outlet for their target audience (me) to see it, they made me aware that theirs is a more relevant product to my lifestyle.

I’m not saying that all marketers understand this- obviously we all still get junk mail.  But at the same time, have you noticed that after researching which new car to buy, your banner ads now feature used models for sale in your area?  Have you recently bought a new yoga mat on Amazon and subsequently noticed a lot more advertisements for local yoga studios?  I even got tweeted at by @fiatnow after mentioning that I was shopping for a Mini Cooper, one of their major competitors.

It’s a bit disconcerting to hear that people are gaining such a comprehensive understanding of each other- but in a twisted, bizarre sort of way, it means we’re making great strides as a human race.  We may still be trashing the environment and waging wars against each other, but I like to think that perhaps we’re inching closer to a world of compassion where people identify with each other and create useful things to benefit one other.  And sure, it can be frightening to see just how much marketers know about you- but if it means that I get relevant information about new blends of organic tea on sale at Whole Foods instead of spammy offers to enlarge anatomy I don’t possess, sign me up!

I’m back!

Hello!  First of all, my apologies for just taking off.  I do that sometimes, particularly when faced with major life changes like finishing university. Perhaps my last post about travelling foreshadowed that it was about to happen again, but it was a fairly spur of the moment decision.  Anyway, I am back now.  In case anyone is interested, I thought I’d include a brief update on my life before I resume my usual blogging habits.

Graduation photo

Yes, I graduated barefoot.

First, I finished up my last coursework and graduated from Syracuse!  I now have a music degree with focus on voice and piano, a minor in marketing, and a minor in IT.  Managed to scrape by Magna cum Laude as well!

Right after graduating I moved out of my place, donated about half of my belongings to charity, and send the rest back to New Jersey with my family.  Two days later, I got on a plane to England.  I stayed with some family before taking off for Prague, Croatia, Switzerland, and making another stop in England, and then I made it back stateside.

Twelve hours after landing in Newark, I began my full time position at Marketsmith.  I was there last summer and they offered me a full-time position- having a job waiting for me was a major factor in my decision to finish school a year early.  I manage social media for the company as well as the charity we sponsor, help out with creative and web design, and write many a blog post.

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, to say the least.  I will write more about my travels once things have settled down-this is the first time I’ve been home for longer than two weeks since last summer, so it’s a bit of an adjustment!  I still haven’t quite unpacked…might just give the rest of my things away and call it a day.  We have too many objects anyway.

Other than that, I’m just trying to keep up my music (anyone need a cocktail pianist or jazz singer?), getting started on some reading for yoga teacher training, enjoying time with my family, and trying to spend some time in the sunshine.  Decompressing after a long few years, deciding where I want my life to go.

Namaste, friends!