Landing, Balanced, On My Feet and Hands

I jumped. I leaped. I broke from (paused) my job, and I went in search – not of answers, but of questions. My head riddled with unanswered anxiety:

  • What do I want?
  • Where do I want to go?
  • What’s my vision for my life?
  • What am I searching for?
  • What am I afraid of?
  • What do I love to do? What brings me strength? Joy?
  • Who am I doing it for?
  • What’s my commitment?

All these, yet I wanted more. I wanted less, all the same. I wanted clear, concise questions. I wanted not to know what mattered to me, but to know that “what matters to me?” is worth asking. I wanted to ask whether how I spend my energy every day can align with who I am.

Reflecting in Lisbon before reaching Cocoon in Alentejo.

I got it all, and then some.


I spent twenty-five days with Anton Brandt and The Sacred Fig yoga school in coastal Alentejo, Portugal at his newly established farm-retreat center, Cocoon. The two-hundred-plus hour training curriculum afforded space for self-exploration, physical challenge, and emotional development. Anton assembles world-class faculty to teach yoga asana, philosophy, anatomy, and other related topics. Anton knows a lot, creates each moment with compassion and focus, and doesn’t claim to know what he doesn’t. His second-to-none authenticity transpired in my deeply meaningful experience, embraced by a cocoon of indelible support.

A large portion of the class convened on the sidewalk of a bustling commercial in central Lisbon to board a bus southward to Cocoon.

“Hi, I’m Kirandeep. I work in procurement, but I’m in between jobs right now.”
“I’m Timna. I work as a trauma surgeon, but I’m tired of working 12-14 hour shifts and needed a break.”
“I’m Miles. I freelance in web development, and I’m getting ready to spend a year working remotely.”

I hesitate to put names and labels on these people, because they’re so much more than their job title and the handful of words I use to describe them. What I mean to communicate is our simultaneous diversity and common ground; we traveled from far and wide with a shared desire for a deeper understanding of our place in the world.

Teachers and students who became teachers. All of us continue as students of our practice before we can serve others as their teacher.

The Sanskrit word “yoga” has many definitions. Most yoga students and teachers agree that yoga means unity and oneness. Etymologically related to “yoke,” yoga describes the binding of oneself within (ie connecting the conscious and non-conscious self) and the self with the social/external universe. Yoga’s existential contemplation carries philosophical implications. Rebecca Ketchum flowed seamlessly into the curriculum to introduce the ancient yogic texts (the Yoga Sutra and the Bhagivad Gita), Ayurvedic principles, and her own grafting of yoga’s spiritual elements in her Judeo-Christian roots. The dominant yoga of today’s western world isolates asana – the bodily practice of postures and shapes – and largely glazes over the other seven limbs of yoga. To understand more about yoga philosophy, consider some basic research on the eight limbs of yoga or the Yoga Sutra.

My own yoga practice partly roots in creating solace from trying times. The other moments cultivate a calm mind and physical relief before and after running, cycling, and swimming. When I felt the slightest overwhelmed, I grounded myself in breath and movement. I felt comforted by the fact that so many other students had similar states of their curricular selves: recently quit a job, in a transition back to school, untangling questions about challenging personal relationships, etc. I wanted more than a hundred warriors – I, II, or III – and needed more than an up dog to raise my spirits. In entering my yoga teacher training, I sought – and found – evolution through introspection.

I learned to hold space for myself, through noble silence, and for others, through being present for whatever emotions arose. Words matter, deeply. Alongside Matt Corker, we practiced speaking impeccably – without speaking against ourselves or others – and teaching with minimum relevant words. We also studied how to support one another without words. By physically existing in someone else’s presence, I can honor their needs, and if they consent, my being can support theirs with physical touch. To the courageous (meaning: of the heart) question “can I have a hug?,” an authentic affirmation speaks more than a thousand words. Likewise, when I, as a yoga teacher, support students with a physical adjustment, I give them a new, different, and perhaps better experience in their own body.

The privilege of yoga teacher training is to have five (or more) friends supporting me physically and emotionally.

Anton and his team asked two things of us each day:

  1. Show up on time.
  2. Have a positive attitude.

These “rules” closely follow my own leadership philosophy:

  1. Be there.
  2. Play and have fun.
  3. Byproduct / default result: Win.

I found it easy to show up and say “yes” in most moments; I showed up on time for everything. My full self revealed itself and evolved in the moments where I resisted, when my mind spiraled and I saw the world around me as a foreign obstruction. There were several moments where I fought anger and feigned willingness. I chose to perceive something about other peoples’ way of being as personally offensive, and I suffered for it. As I observed myself in these moments, I stepped back to process the thoughts and let go of my attachment to my way of thinking. With this mindset, I returned to flourishing with a positive attitude.

Preparing for our graduation photo – all smiles!

I jumped. I leaped. I landed. On my own two feet. On my hands. My head balanced on my shoulders – or sometimes supporting them. I live in the supportive embrace of loving humans, and I am embracing our shared inevitable being. We breathe alone, together. I move with you, on my own.


Thanks for reading! Want to know more about my experience in yoga teacher training? I plan to write and share more. Leave a comment below to ask a question or suggest a topic.

The Never-ending Weekend

It took five days to realize that my sabbatical had started. In the repetition of “I’m going to yoga teacher training in Portugal and then I’ll travel for another month,” I forgot about the week of downtime beforehand. I mean, I knew it was happening, but I forgot it was part of the whole experience. In fact, moments of downtime were infrequent. I balanced my time with the required reading assignments for the yoga course, “last” time meetings with friends, being outside, and preparing to sublet my apartment. With the pinnacle experience fast approaching, I almost didn’t realize that I’m one week into my 19 week vacation. My detachment from work started immediately, and I subsequently created a lot of fascinating experiences and emotions for myself.

I very consciously chose to start this journey on my birthday, and in retrospect, know this was the right choice. Everyone deserves to treat themselves to things that bring them joy. If I owned a company, I’d make birthdays mandatory paid holidays for each employee. I focused on enjoying myself, with a mix of things I love to do, places I enjoy, and new experiences. Perhaps most importantly, I woke up and made a conscious decision to have a good day. With a boost from the change to warm, sunny weather, I had a great day. With the exception of one minor moment of anxiety – which I suspect I know the root of – I felt pure joy on my birthday, the first day of my sabbatical.

Hanging out in my favorite park on my birthday evening

The subsequent day was less of an emotional high, because I was a bit stressed preparing for a birthday picnic. At midnight, chocolate ice cream batter – the third of three varieties – boiled over on the stovetop. I went to yoga before noon, and suddenly felt the day was disappearing, then at 4pm, I fell asleep on a hillside in the park while waiting 3 hours for my apartment key to be copied. I reacted to those stressors by just trudging through and pretending I was fine. I was. In the end, I had a clean stove and a spare key, and lost nothing but energy along the way. Two days of naturally sliding into afternoon nap time tell me that my body needed this break, so I’m grateful for the timing and ability to process time as it comes and goes.

Oops…

I gathered a small group of friends at a park nearby my house for a cozy sunset picnic. Twelve of us snacked and chatted until we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. (It was dark! I’m in one of my frequent sobriety phases, anyway.) Robin and Peejay’s homemade Dutch apple pie paired especially well with my homemade ice creams. I definitely want you to teach me that recipe, boys! Despite the stress that I created (in my head) in my preparation, the company of so many loving humans reminded me how much our friends enrich our lives.

Impressive Dutch apple pie, handmade with a number 28

Ciao, friends!

Quite an impressive birthday cake candle, nah?

By Friday, I needed a break from my break… okay, kidding! I just needed to get some stuff done and balance the relaxation time. At this point, especially with Germany’s four-day Easter weekend, I lost track of the calendar days. I see no purpose in prescribing attitudes and ways of thinking with certain weekdays. Forget Sunday scaries, Monday doldrums, and celebrating Friday or the weekend. Every day has the same potential. To free up the rest of the weekend, when friends would be free and the forecast called for ideal outdoor weather, I spent Friday morning packing many of the things in my apartment, making space for a friend who will stay there. I felt liberated to sort through physical possessions and realize how much I don’t need, despite the relatively little I own, compared to my American peers.

With the warmth and sunshine continuing to grace all of Berlin, I ran to Volkspark Friedrichshain and met Selene for a few hours of relaxation … but no nap! I spent Friday night at home, procrastinating my yoga readings, and readying my mind for Saturday’s epic canoe adventure.

Sunday was Easter, and by then, I was definitely confused about the weekday. I biked across the river into Kreuzberg, passing many open-air clubs, where the spirit of Berlin still sounded strong at 10am, and met Cinzia at a brunch buffet on the canal. We enjoyed several hours of sunlight glistening off the water, discussing our respective evolutions in life activities and mindsets. As I ready myself for this immersive travel adventure, she prepares for a new job and heavily invests in evolving her world perspectives with admirable reading habits. From there, we cycled across the street to relax in the sun at another park. Yes, there’s a pattern here. Berlin has many green spaces, and Germans embrace time outdoors in most seasons.

I spent Sunday afternoon at another friend’s rooftop terrace, a sort of Easter soirée meets the benevolence of Mother Nature and friendship. Five of us ventured to an open-air club in the evening, where we embraced the vibrations of the sunset late into the night.

Monday… another holiday! I finished packing my bag, read at the park, saw more friends… Tuesday: rinse and repeat, plus some errands, since retail stores finally re-opened. And Wednesday, today, I arrived in Portugal after an only mildly hectic morning of last minute things at home. (Read mildly hectic as: calm, cool, and collected on the outside, but mentally panicking and physically rushing…)

In the constant flux between nothing and everything, relaxation and productivity, being and doing, I gained awareness about my competing calm and chaotic minds. I like the calm one better. I think I won’t have another to-do list for months, and I’m ready to focus on my being, to slow down time, to be where I am, and not to worry about where I’m not nor what I’m not getting “done.”

9 Posts I Might Never Write

“There’s not much use in thinking about things. You just see the decision, make a choice, and act.”

– Me, paraphrasing Dad’s advice

And then there’s me in reality. I think about writing posts far more often than I write them, but thinking doesn’t get the job done. Adrenaline often fuels my creative word brain. I ideate a topic at a time (cycling to work, washing dishes, running to the park where I’m sitting now under a tree…) separately from actually writing. I write down the idea, and I never make time to formulate more than the one line. So, I’m going to free my brain by releasing all the posts I might never write or publish.

  • The German trash and recycling system – there are four bins at home: paper/cardboard, bio/compost, packaging, and other waste (actual trash). Glass goes in special pods that are placed on sidewalks throughout the city. I wonder if the people who sort the packaging get mad at me when I discard something that doesn’t qualify, because I have no clue what qualifies.
  • Thailand – I went there. It was a great solo vacation. I wrote one little post about diving, and then I made an excuse that my job kept me too busy to write more. I also intended to finish producing a video, but I don’t “finish” it. What is “finished” for a self-ideated project, anyway? Let’s call it done!
  • Cases, Gender, etc in German grammar – there are 4 cases, 3 genders, and a/an or the… knowing which article to use when speaking or writing German feels like rolling dice.
  • I experience substantial euphoria when I’m SCUBA diving, and last year I started exploring underwater photography with a Paralenz dive camera. I dove in Thailand, Malta, and Seattle.
  • Berries. Fresh, juicy ones, picked right off the bush in random places: under a bridge in Seattle, next to a lake/beach in Berlin, in the fjord rainforests of Alaska…
  • Love. Yes, that’s actually an idea I wrote down.
  • 101 things to know about Berlin. This post is actually in progress.
  • A review of Christmas Eve dinner at Tennerhof. I even have a draft – with no content – titled “Christmas, Traditionally”
  • How I skipped winter by baking croissants

Now you know what’s on my mind, and now it’s off my mind. Thanks for reading. Now go enjoy some fresh air!

Here, I Am.

I haven’t “quit” my job in the normal sense, but unofficially, I have. I agreed with my various bosses that I need time off. I thought about 8 or 12 weeks – a generous leave by US standards – and they said I should take more… From my “last” day of work tomorrow, I have four-and-a-half months of freedom. I keep saying, in a half-joking tone, that I haven’t had this much free time since before pre-school.

I couldn’t be more excited and scared. I guess both joy and fear are signs to keep going.

What’s going to happen?

I have about a week of down/prep time in Berlin. Next week I fly to Lisbon, Portugal and continue on to a 25-day yoga teacher training at a coastal farm called Cocoon.

Yoga teacher training? Are you gonna start teaching yoga, Stephen?

The intent is to ground myself in a practice that I know brings stability to my mind and body. I’ve practiced yoga for more than six years and consistently had a desire for a deeper yogic experience. I put yoga teacher training at the top of a psuedo-bucket list called “what are you waiting for?”… and after all, what am I waiting for? No time like the present!

Funny side story about my first experience with yoga, pictured below: March 2013 – I traveled to the beach with three friends. A guy was doing yoga on the sand, and I decided to follow along. He returned the next day. I repeated. I went to thank him after two hours of practice, and we talked. He was an architectural designer and split his time between New York and Russia, but was visiting his mom in Florida. He said something about the importance of following the rhythm of the breath. Suddenly, my insides felt empty, and I regretfully admitted that I didn’t pay attention to my breath at all in those first two “classes.”

I am following my instinct to know this is right for me in this moment. True story: I clicked an online business school advertisement (ha!) while browsing the web in my crazy state of what-am-I-doing-with-my-life, and I wrote a candid, borderline-distraught email to one of the business school alum: Matt Corker, a writer, yoga instructor, and people/leadership consultant. At Matt’s invitation, and sensing the too-good-to-be-true, serendipitous nature, I snagged a cancelled spot in The Sacred Fig’s yoga teacher training a few weeks ago. In the past few weeks, I’ve been enjoying the pre-assigned reading and mentally gearing up for this adventure. (I admit that I am also struggling with a brain that I have habitually conditioned against focusing on reading books! … working on that… and open to advice!)

And for the 3+ months after The Sacred Fig?

Mostly to be determined… depending on my state of mind after a few weeks away from work, I will make the decisions as they come. I’m trusting my consciousness. I’ll likely stay in Portugal and Spain for late May and June, then I have a return flight from Sevilla, Spain to Berlin after a friend’s wedding. I think that I might walk the northern route of the Camino de Santiago. I may also explore Portugal more, including scuba diving, or find something else that I feel called to do with my time. These moments are about being present, seeing and accepting new perspectives, and awakening my sleeping self. I have about 9 weeks that I haven’t committed to doing anything in June/July/August, and this empty calendar is the pinnacle of the fear! WOOHOO! As I heard from an interview with Meera Lee Patel this weekend, it’s refreshing to realize that I’ve survived 100% of the scariest moments in my past so far.

Leading up to the “start” of this sabbatical I am thoughtfully developing a sense of direction and intent. Right now, here’s what I know:

  • I want to practice awareness of my calm mind and be conscious in chaotic environments. I’m drawn to chaos but I also fight it. I’m going to ground myself in the present.
  • I don’t think that there is an “answer” to find in this process. Rather than answers, I’m focused on understanding what questions are important for me to explore now and in the future. Many family, friends, and especially strangers have gifted me with thought-provoking questions. I recognize some prompts as ones that I’ve avoided answering. Now, I’m allowing myself to receive the questions with curiosity about where they lead me… hopefully to more questions!
  • I know – especially from my unstructured weekends – that it will be challenging to not have a prescribed routine, a to-do list, a schedule, etc… those false constructions that create superficial validation for me. I accept this challenge and want to be mindful of balancing a hunger for productivity with the reality that being – and doing so consciously – is the most meaningful way I can spend my time. Work (doing) is a distraction from life (being). I am pursuing a different awareness of my preferred balance. I will practice shifting from a commitment to being serious to a commitment to play.
  • I have many, many, many books that I’d like to read. (And I want to write one… topic TBD…). Stay tuned for an eventual publication.

a poem I wrote some years ago

How great it is to be alive.

To walk. To breath. To smile.

Humans are blessed to interact.

“Social animals.” Yet we

socialize so little. We worry.

We work.

We don’t play.

Be more playful.

Play keeps me alive.

Body. Brain.

Play means: letting joy overtake

Desire over require —

Meant to inspire laughter.

Smiles cause fire in the soul

A gentle candle, with an oxygen boost

Breath. By play. By conversation.

Enriched.

What if enriched adults became kids?

Loss of innocence means loss of any sense

of play.

Don’t play with your food.”

“Plays well with others.”

Well, with others. To exist.

To be well.

To walk. To smile.

How great it is to be alive.

Why did I move to Berlin?

“After I studied abroad in Denmark, I knew that I wanted to live abroad again. I asked if there was an opportunity to transfer my work. They said, ‘yes.'”

“I moved around a lot while growing up, and I know that I’m stimulated by being in new environments.”

These are some of the truthful, common answers I’ve given over the past year and a half. In the back of my mind, I’ve tucked away a sustained curiosity, believing there’s a deeper meaning to my desire to move. I’ve asked myself: am I running away from something I fear or toward something I desire? People asked how long I was going for, and honestly, I never set a timeline. I don’t know the answers, but I’ve decided to ruminate and cut open my rationale.

Since my international move, I’ve discovered a previously misunderstood value of downtime and time alone. I didn’t spend time doing nothing, alone. Solitude is scary, right? I, like many of us, still distract myself from solitude with mindless scrolling on Instagram, Twitter, or whatever platform my subconscious can grasp to shield itself from silence. When was the last time you sat and patiently waited for a friend to arrive, that you rode a bus, train, or plane without picking up your phone, book, computer, a magazine? When was the last time you practiced being? (That’s not a typo.)

As my twin brother recently wrote to me: “How do you have time to contemplate all of this stuff?!” I have time, because I make time to be. [To be transparent, I also spend a lot of time distracted and avoiding the practice of being.] My German lifestyle has fewer priorities than my American lifestyle. Anecdotally, I think Germans create a notable amount of time and space in their lives for sitting with friends in conversation, walking in nature, vacationing, and being. Whether I’m German or not, I’m surrounded by their energy. There are few-to-no 24-hour grocery stores. Companies close for public holidays, not because they’re all religious, but because workism is not their religion. They embrace public parks, pools, and playgrounds, as well as bars, cafes, and restaurants.

In my go-getter American mindset, downtime used to be downright scary! There are numerous occasions where I’ve fallen into microdepression after silently spending hours at home alone. These are now balanced against the euphoria that I feel when I wake up rested, because I give myself the time to sleep. I feel the same balance when I leave work with no plan, no place to be, and no one to be late for; I am afraid and overjoyed by this freedom.

Being alone can be uncomfortable and unfamiliar. I’m learning not to push away or run from discomfort. Stress is not noise; in fact, it’s part of the signal, the communication that we’re meant to listen to. Pay attention to when and where there’s discomfort: physically and emotionally. I observe, recognize, and accept unoccupied quiet time, having no to-do list, and not speaking a word to anyone on a weekend morning. I am realizing that I don’t need anything other than myself to be me.

What is discomfort? Comfort comes from the Latin “confortare” (to strengthen) or com- and -fortis, with strength. Thus, discomfort is a weakening or perceived lack of strength. Our bodies protect us by struggling when we do not believe we are strong.

The mind is powerful, to create both strength and weakness, comfort and discomfort. Ever feel like your mind is racing with negativity? Humans are disposed to sense weakness, to see threats in our environment, and to avoid danger. Perhaps this is why we run from tasks that are hard and challenge our strength. Running from discomfort takes energy, too. If we can learn to control our minds and our reactions in the face of perceived danger, in moments of discomfort, and in stress, we save energy, a strategy that fuels our survival.

So, I ran to Germany. And in Germany, my mind tries to run away from the discomfort of solitude. I’m embracing this fact of life, not as something hard, but as something new.

A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; … if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.

Schopenhauer, “The World as Will and Idea,” 1818

While I’m hardly alone in Berlin, I spend more time alone now than I have before. So, if this is true, I ran away to learn to love freedom, and that’s really not comfortable to admit.