Today is January 29, and it’s my birthday. Well it’s not only MY birthday. It’s also Oprah Winfrey’s birthday! Like many of you this year, for me (and maybe Oprah?), this particular birthday is being celebrated quietly, pandemic style. And while I’m quite comfortable with aloneness, today I have a distinct feeling of loneliness, which is a tender and vulnerable feeling to write about.
As an only child, an Aquarian, and a rugged individualist, aloneness has been my friend and saviour for decades. And, as a gay kid growing up in a tough blue-collar city, I certainly know what it feels like to not fit in.
But lately, I’ve been experiencing a kind of “not -fitting-in” that frequently comes as a consequence of being on the spiritual path. I first recognized this flavor of loneliness when I was practicing meditation intensely with Paul Muller Ortega. Several times a year, I would go on retreat to a remote location, sit for multiple rounds of daily meditation, chant mantra, journal, attend satsang, eat, sleep, rinse and repeat … for ten consecutive days. Re-entry into the “real world” after all this inner work was often painful and disorienting. The coarseness of everyday life felt like an assault on my senses, a culture shock, and I felt like an alien on my home planet.
When I refer to loneliness in relation to spiritual awakening, I’m referring to the experience of seeing the meaning I had once given to certain things suddenly vanish. There is a stripping away of sorts. And during such times, I experience a vast chasm between myself and so much of the world. This is a troubling paradox since, by definition, YOGA actually means to unite, to join, to connect. These episodes of alienation are temporary and usually appear when I am making a breakthrough in my sadhana, so that’s a good thing. But before I feel fully integrated, I often experience a profound frustration that the majority of the population is not doing the same inner work.
Gosh, I do hope this is not coming off as arrogant or spiritually pretentious! I am certainly just as flawed a human as the next human. It’s just that I find my process of awakening to be unfolding while so much of humanity appears to be unconscious. Luckily, this signals to me where my work lies. It’s no longer about my skillfulness in navigating my inner world; it’s about becoming more adept in engaging with my outer world. Less judgment and frustration. More compassion and understanding. Less escapism, more engage-ism.
I am reminded of the final day of my Advanced Nidra training with my teacher Kamini Desai when she closed with this sentiment: “Speaking from experience, progress on the spiritual path can feel like a very lonely affair.” This surprised me, coming from a very powerful, successful woman who is happily partnered. But now I see what she was alluding to.
So this one goes out to all you seekers who occasionally find yourselves wandering in a world that doesn’t seem to “get you.” That’s a gift to be cherished, and it means you’re on the right track.
By the way, Oprah just texted me, and she agrees.
This week marks the 30th anniversary of Eddie’s death. Eddie, my dad, was barely 52 when he passed. I was 28. My only real regret is that I missed the opportunity to enjoy an adult relationship with him. I am just now, decades later, curious about aspects of him that were of no interest to a younger me.
I know I work this quasi-Malibu surfer look, but, truth be told, I’m an Italian-Jew from just outside NYC. I grew up in a rough, blue-collar city in New Jersey. And as the son of a Navy veteran with anchor tattoos on his arms, I am still confounded by the mystery that he was a closet yogi.
I say mystery because, notwithstanding his outward appearance, he could frequently be found in our living room, in the dark, either standing on his head or sitting in meditation. His guide was nothing more than a stained, second-hand, copy of a yoga book. And a yearning for … actually, I don’t know. Stress relief? A spiritual calling? Alone time? It’s too late now for me to ask him, but I’d sure love to know what brought him to this practice.
As a kid, I found this all fairly ridiculous. My mom and I would roll our eyes and tease him mercilessly, and I was more than a little embarrassed to bring kids over to play for fear he would be, well, standing on his head in the dark.
Reflecting on this now, I deeply admire what I appreciate as his courage and curiosity. He had neither YogaGlo nor DVDs at his disposal. No mat. No props. There wasn’t a yoga studio for many miles, and no one in his life would even have known what yoga was, much less be practicing it (except maybe The Beatles? It was the late ‘60’s, after all). Despite the absence of any spiritual guide to learn from or yoga community to lean on, my dad stood on his head in the dark. It was the only pose he ever did, and he did it devotedly.
Today, as I think back to his practice and consider my own students, I wonder whether there are activities that you engage in that are unconventional given the context of how, where, or when you were raised. Are you manifesting something that feels mysteriously incongruous in the greater context of your life? Do you have a practice that is unpredictable or against the odds but that your heart drives you to do anyway?
If not, that’s okay. But if so, please do recognize your heart and give yourself a round of applause.
[Oh, and the irony isn’t lost on me that, despite my childhood embarrassment and dad-shaming, I am the one who actually became a yoga teacher. Permission granted, Dad, to roll your eyes and laugh.]
Who’s the guy with the scratched-out face, a.k.a. He Who Must Not Be Named (HWMNBN)?
He’s now My Favorite Mistake (MFM)!
Let me explain.
In New York, circa 1998, I ended a relationship with HWMNBN. It was as toxic as toxic can be, replete with all the ingredients of a telenovela–cheating, lying, betrayal, gaslighting. It was so bad, in fact, that in addition to breaking up with HWMNBN, I felt I needed to break up with NYC and start life anew in a brand new geography, a new and strange city. I chose Los Angeles because it was unfamiliar territory, and it was as far away from NYC as I could go within the USA. Had the Pacific Ocean not existed, I might have gone farther still.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Hollywood sign. I took my very first yoga class ever. A brand new friend named Denise (a.k.a. She Who MUST Be Named) invited me to go with her to a Power Yoga class in Santa Monica, and it was a seminal moment in my life. That singular class changed everything for me–my destiny, my spiritual orientation, my life’s mission.
The point of dragging you through this ready-for-internet drama is to emphasize this: a toxic relationship jettisoned me to L.A. to jump start my acting career and to heal a broken heart. Twelve years later, after having discovered yoga there, I emerged from L.A. as the man I was meant to be in this world. And it is critical that I honor both this outcome and its impetus.
So at this time of the holiday dedicated to thanksgiving, I bow gratefully even to those wretched experiences, now integral threads in my life-tapestry. Were it not for HWMNBN, I would not have experienced the marvels of these past 22 years. And thus, he who had been known as HWMNBN has now officially been renamed My Favorite Mistake (MFM).
Do you have a Favorite Mistake? Something that, in the moment, felt unbearable and even shameful? Because I guarantee that if you did a little connect-the-dots backtracking right now, you would find that this “mistake” eventually led you to something rather terrific: the unfoldment of an auspicious sequence of events that has led you to Now.
It’s a challenge indeed. But in your gratitude contemplation, I dare you to summon forth a treacherous experience and transform it from an HWMNBN to an MFM. And, in the process of this transformation, say a little prayer of gratitude for the contribution this experience has made to your fabulous life.
Gratitude for ALL of you. And yes, for you too, MFM.
“Yoga Nidra builds our Allostatic Load!”
exclaimed John Vosler to a confused Marc Holzman.*
*That was an exchange on our Yoga Nidra Satsang Zoom call last Sunday.
**Full admission: I had to research Allostatic Load.
By general definition, allostasis and homeostasis seem similar because both are ways that we maintain stability in the midst of change. But there’s a B-I-G difference.
Homeostasis keeps us alive by holding us within the very narrow limits of body temperature/chemicals. We humans have a “must” temperature: 37ºC/98.6ºF. If we vary by even 4-5 degrees above or below this set point, we die. Note: we are surviving on this planet within a very slim margin.
Similarly, allostasis is our response to some challenge, either from outside or inside of ourselves. This response is what allows us to handle the stress of that challenge. That’s great. But as more stress comes our way, and we keep increasing our ability to handle it at great physical/emotional costs, the healthy allostasis response becomes Allostatic Load. That’s not so great.
Put another way, with homeostasis, the set point is pretty fixed with very little wiggle room. When we’re cold, we KNOW we are cold, and the body kicks into gear to save our lives. With allostasis, our set point for handling stress is pushed and pushed and pushed until we are no longer even aware that we are living in a chronic, low-level state of Fight or Flight. Allostatic Load becomes our new normal. And over time, this presents a big problem.
Nidra helps us turn off those brain circuits that continue to dump adrenaline into our system. It’s one of many tools we have to Unload the Allostatic Load.
If you missed the Zoom call live on Sunday with John and me, no worries.
and head over to my YouTube channel to watch it (or just listen). Whether you’re into Yoga Nidra or not, it’s chock-full of useful life hacks on how to be a Human Being vs. a Human Doing. John is charismatic and super knowledgeable.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the importance of what it means to take an oath. As I watch a parade of diplomats take oaths in our presidential impeachment hearings, I find myself playing a guessing game of who is taking their oaths seriously and for whom is oath taking just a hollow formality.
When the framers of our US Constitution put oaths in place in the 18th century, it was not a casual proposition. Placing your hand on a bible and vowing to uphold the Constitution was a gesture of sworn accountability and a commitment to “truth” in the presence of God, colleagues, friends and family.
Oaths are not confined to government. Couples take marriage vows (in sickness and in health), and doctors take the Hippocratic Oath. Fun fact: my favorite line in the more modern translation of the Hippocratic oath is “I will not be ashamed to say I know not… ”
Even Ayurvedic practitioners keep an oath and ask blessings of Lord Dhanvatari, the Hindu god of Medicine.
So what is this sacred potency that is nestled inside the language of an oath? To be sure, the potency doesn’t lie within the actual words but in the intention that sits behind them. In much the same way as a yoga pose risks being a dry, hollow shape without intention breathed into it, an oath devolves into dry, hollow words without integrity breathed into it.
As I begin to revamp my Ayurveda Habits Course, I am considering asking students to take a solemn oath–a covenant–to commit to their daily self-care. Habit-change science has proven that when you make a promise with specificity–preferably in writing–the power of the new habit already begins to inculcate.
For example, vaguely saying to yourself: “I’d like to start eating an earlier and lighter dinner a few times a week” is a little, dare I say, weak. But writing down on paper “I, Marc Holzman, solemnly vow to eat an early and light dinner on Tuesdays and Thursdays” holds promise and power.
Now, that may sound silly at first blush, but really what you’re doing is making a sacred promise to your soul–a sworn declaration honoring the gift of embodiment which is the vehicle through which your dharma (AKA your soul’s mission) acts.
Perhaps poet Mark Nepo can sum up more eloquently the importance of taking an oath to ourselves:
To Marry One’s Soul
Being true to who we are means carrying our spirit like a candle in the center of our darkness.
The same commitments we pronounce when embarking on a marriage can be understood internally as a devotion to the care of one’s soul:
to have and to hold …
for better or for worse …
in sickness and in health …
to love and to cherish,
till death do us part…
And just as two ropes that are married create a tie that is twice as strong, when we marry our humanness to our spirit, we create a life that is doubly strong in the world.
And in this light, I present my oath to you:
In the upcoming year’s events, I, Marc Holzman, vow to LISTEN more when I teach so as to better serve. Oh, and I will not be ashamed to say “I know not.”
Amazing opportunities to reunite await us in the coming year. Let’s have some fun in 2020.
It’s a promise!
One of the ways I create unconscious chaos for myself is by leaving situations incomplete.
I’m not merely referring to errands on my daily to-do list, although, if not jotted down on paper, those mundane errands have been known to bang around in my brain at 3am.
I’m talking about a lifetime of conversations I’ve walked away from without saying what was truly in my heart and mind. Relationships that have ended with no closure. Childhood trauma where I was too young to speak up or defend myself because I didn’t feel safe or really understand how to.
Has this ever happened to you? You’re gliding through your day when suddenly, out of the blue, you’re hit with a memory of an unreconciled argument from yesteryear. Where did THIS come from? Before long, you’re replaying the argument in your mind, but this time, of course, you create your own ending in which you deliver that crushing, perfectly worded, final blow. You are victorious! Congratulations! You’ve just controlled the past. (Ok that was slightly sarcastic).
Life coach and author Dr. Gay Hendricks has much to say about this phenomenon and reminds us that nature loves completion; it abhors a vacuum. And incompletion is a kind of vacuum. The first philosophical concept I learned in Tantra was the Five Acts of Shiva which include, after creation and sustenance, dissolution. So, in the example above, when we leave a conversation without fully revealing what’s in our minds and hearts, a pressure begins to build inside us, and the force of nature propels us to seek completion. Ideally, that completion happens in the present moment in real time. Often, unfortunately, it resurfaces years later as a recurring, painful memory begging to be put to rest.
So how do we tie up all those incomplete moments? Therapy can help to some degree, but I’ve really made some interesting headway through a consistent Yoga Nidra practice. When I completed my Nidra Teacher Training, this was one of the most promising realizations.
Yoga Nidra is a guided meditation technique that harnesses the biology of sleep for a spiritual purpose. Using a series of breath, body, and awareness techniques, it consciously follows brainwaves down towards sleep where thoughts naturally distance themselves. It is here that we plant the seed of our intention because it is here that the mind is at its most receptive and able to integrate it.
One intention I have been working with lately is: “I release all incomplete experiences of my past. I rest in pure awareness.”
I’ve fallen in love with Nidra and am committed to sharing it in every workshop, retreat, and public class that I teach.
Let’s just say my relationship with straight men is confusing.
I was harshly gay-bullied all through elementary school and much of high school. And while I harbor no resentment towards the male species, I have often felt that I had to work too hard to find common ground between us.
Until this past weekend …
Sixty empty chairs were arranged in circle formation when I entered the main room of the EVRYMAN retreat where I was invited to guest-teach just one hour of yoga during the weekend and to be a participant if I wanted. And I wanted. Sort of. But my heart was racing and my mouth was dry because I didn’t expect such a large turnout. Sixty straight guys and me on a healing journey? Buckle up, Marc.
EVRYMAN is a scrappy, B-Corp startup with an ambitious mission: to help men become better men by providing a safe space to bond, share, trust, be vulnerable, and listen–NOT to problem-solve (which men love to do), but to deeply listen.
Curated and facilitated by a group of dynamite therapists and life coaches, the weekend demands deep, uncomfortable inner work in a group dynamic. Last year, there were 30 participants. This year, there were 60 plus a waiting list. So this scrappy B-Corp, which deliberately removed the second E in EVRYMAN (they couldn’t afford the EVERYMAN domain name) has clearly tapped into something.
For example, did you know that men are four times more likely to commit suicide than women? For myriad reasons, men isolate, swallow emotions, and suffer in silence. EVRYMAN provides the decompression valve.
As the weekend progressed–whether in small break-out groups, around the dinner table, or on a silent hike–I watched these brave men doff their heavy armor. The trusting and sharing deepened. The laughter amplified. Tears flowed more freely while embarrassment melted away. Decades of unexpressed fear and loneliness released into vulnerability.
This had been the missing link!! It was in our willingness to be vulnerable with one another that I finally found comfort on the soft, fertile, common ground of our shared humanity.
We all have closets. A closet is simply the inability to have a difficult conversation, and gay people don’t hold a monopoly on that. On the surface, our closets may appearto be different (notably, mine sports a rainbow flag), but they’re not.
The commonality that all closets share is that they’re dark and lonely on the inside. And our willingness to be vulnerable with each other about that feeling of isolation holds the power to free us from it.
On Sunday evening, at the end of the weekend, we all filed back into the barn for our closing circle. Only two days earlier, we had sat in the same formation, alone together … sweating, unsure, isolating ourselves in our own minds. Now, as I looked around the circle with 60 closet doors flung wide open, one thing was palpably clear:
In just 48 hours, vulnerability had turned Every Man into EVRYMAN.
How much information should a yoga teacher reveal?
When is personal information too much?
In an article in the New York Times entitled Students Learn from the People They Love, the author–a rather dry, conservative, buttoned-up Yale professor–recounts that he wrote an email to his students simply stating that he had to cancel office hours the following day because of some difficult personal issues he was experiencing. That’s all. No details.
Fifteen or so students immediately wrote back to wish him well and to offer assistance if needed. He was struck by how sharing one moment of personal vulnerability could spark such a warm, unexpected, response. The matrix softened, and the tenor of the class shifted from that moment until the end of the semester. They (both teacher and students) seemed more present and receptive. No longer was he the clinical, aloof professor but a “regular Joe” just tryin’ to get through life like everyone else.
There is a symbiotic link between emotional relationships and learning. In the past, it was widely thought that in order to be rational and “think well,” one had to suppress those pesky gremlins called Emotions. But new cognitive data now shows that emotion is not the opposite of reason but essential to it.
So how personal is too personal in the yoga studio?
On one end of the spectrum, I’ve experienced the over-share that is common in L.A.–a mecca for the frustrated-out-of work-actor-turned-yoga teacher, the teacher who uses the captive audience (the students) to perform and talk. And talk. And talk. About themselves. Gah!!!
And on the polar opposite end, there are the teachers who dispassionately download knowledge into a student’s brain with no personal touch. I’ve had conversations with yoga teachers who have confided in me that, on retreats, they have zero social contact with students outside of the sessions. Zero. They even eat their meals in a different location to avoid interaction. I understand conserving energy, but jeez!
So where is the middle path?
In skillfully navigating these waters, fellow teachers, here is what experience has taught me: Open your class with a personal story to set a foundational theme. That’s great. But then, very quickly, that personal story must become Universal. The “I” in all your sentences must turn into “WE.” Your work as a teacher is to take that story and blast it open to include everyone. Otherwise, it’s performance. Your story may be one of personal suffering, and that’s okay. But if at any moment your students start feeling like they need to take care of YOU, you’ve crossed the line. They didn’t sign up for that.
Very often students will approach me after class and be amazed that my theme resonated in such a deeply personal way.
“It was like you could read my mind!”
“This is exactly what I am experiencing right now!”
And while I would love to fancy myself some great clairvoyant or mystic or world class intuit, the truth is I am simply sharing a personal experience that holds the potential for a Universal teaching.
On some level, it belongs to me, but really it belongs to We.
“My humanity is bound up in yours,
For we can only be human together.”
~ Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Let’s share some experiences together this upcoming year, shall we?
Ten years after heart surgery, blood work is still a challenge for me. Taking daily anticoagulant medication (blood thinners) requires blood monitoring every four weeks, and it’s my least favourite ritual. It keeps me feeling like a perennial patient.
Having sampled countless phlebotomists from all over the world, I’ve become an astute connoisseur in, well, The Art of Blood Extraction. After 120 mini-invasions into my vein over the past decade, I believe I’ve earned this distinction.
I’m a fierce data collector in the moments before a needle slides in: I observe how the technician enters the room. Are they yielding to the space around them or aggressively pushing through it? I watch how they handle the vials, how they grab my arm to tie the elastic armband, and how they apply the alcohol swab to that tender area on the underbelly of my arm. Is there eye contact? Are they distracted? What is the quality of their voice? And what does my intuition tell me? If I’m bracing and my heart is racing, the red flag goes up. The cumulative effect of these experiences has made me more sensitive and bold in equal measure.
If I sense something is amiss when I sit in The Chair, I’ll politely excuse myself and ask for another phlebotomist.
Blood extraction takes ten seconds, but my energetic data-gathering begins way before that.
I’ve learned a great deal about teaching through my experiences in the blood lab. The way I enter a yoga class, in no small measure, is informed by a decade of observing scores of phlebotomists. I want my students to feel the same way I’d like to feel when I enter a lab: safe, relaxed, trustful.
That process begins way before the first Namaste.
How do you move through your yoga practice? Through your daily life? How do you pick up a water glass or transition to triangle pose? Are you thumping your feet and aggressively “pushing air” with your body? Or, rather, as my friend and colleague Tara Judelle would ask, are you “gracefully painting space”?
Your movements send ripples through the fabric of the cosmos. They carry signals. When you notice that people feel relaxed and safe in your presence, this is a sign you are making progress on the path.
This ⬆︎ is the card I drew from an Angel Card deck in Bali three visits ago after a crystal bowl sound healing session.
*Bali, Angel Cards, Crystal Bowls . . . Could I possibly shove any more granola-hippy clichés into one sentence?*
BUT (guilty, counter-cliché time), instead of returning the card to the deck, it went in my pocket, and I accidentally took it home. For the next two years, this absconded card has been used as a bookmark, tucked in drawers, lost under the bed, and almost trashed–all the while, popping up again and again at the oddest intervals, taunting me, reminding me that I was depriving someone else of the opportunity to pull this card. Or, perhaps, reminding me that I haven’t contemplated Opportunity fully. After a few years of this little bugger stalking me, I finally returned it to its rightful home on my third trip to Bali.
Initially, I thought the card was beckoning me to keep my eyes peeled for what opportunities, subtle or obvious, were presenting themselves to me. Or maybe it was encouraging me to be more assertive and proactively create my own opportunities versus passively accepting ones that just fell in my lap.
But a simple gratitude practice today revealed a reinterpretation of Opportunity that resounded strongly for me with some self-inquiry:
- What opportunities am I creating for OTHERS?
- Am I creating pathways for others to flourish?
- When I am teaching, am I being too heavy handed? Am I talking so much that I am depriving my students of the opportunity to have their OWN experiences on the yoga mat?
Decades of Opportunity Memories flooded through my brain and heart. I especially remember one of my earliest teachers Sue Elkind. After my first Teacher Training in 2002, a primetime slot opened up on the City Yoga schedule. She wanted to see if I had the chops to handle a 90-minute class, so I taught an “audition class” for her and my peers.
The class went so horribly wrong that my ears still turn red when I write about it all these years later. She called me into her office afterwards. I couldn’t even make eye contact.
And then she offered me my very first teaching job.
When she saw my shock, she simply said: “There is room for improvement, but I see your potential.”
Pay opportunity forward. Penetrate the surface to see potential. Give someone a chance, or a second chance, to flourish. It could change the course of a life.
And don’t steal Angel Cards.