Off Your Mat

Bringing yoga off your mat into your life, one pose at a time.


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The Embracing Pose: Thank you, Elizabeth Gilbert

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I came across a Facebook post the other day that stopped me in my tracks. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

Elizabeth Gilbert wrote something on Facebook that forced me to reevaluate a word.

Here it is:

“I felt the need to speak out once more against the subtle tyranny of the word BALANCE, which I think haunts and punishes modern women more and more every day. 

We are constantly being told that we should be achieving balance — that we should somehow exquisitely be negotiating the relationships between our work lives, our home lives, our romantic lives, our health and well-being, our spiritual selves. You can’t read an interview with a famous woman these days that the journalist does not applaud her for having achieved BALANCE….and then if you turn the pages of that magazine, you will find ten more articles showing how you can achieve balance. too!

Be careful. 

The word BALANCE has tilted dangerously close, I fear, to the word PERFECT — another word that women use as weapons against themselves and each other. 

To say that someone has found the secret to a balanced life is to suggest that they have solved life, and that they now float through their days in a constant state of grace and ease, never suffering stress, ambivalence, confusion, exhaustion, anger, fear, or regret. Which is a wonderful description of nobody, ever. 

Balance, when we do find it, is a breathtakingly temporary condition. We stand upon a world that spins at 2000 miles an hour. Our minds, meanwhile, spin at 200,000 miles an hour. We collide every day with other humans who are also sliding and spinning wildly. The landscape of our lives, therefore, changes by the minute. You find your balance one day and think, “Hooray! I have solved it” and then five minutes later the world utterly transforms again, and you’re knocked on your ass one more time.

That’s just how life is on this planet — messy, fast, out of control, unpredictable. It’s all terribly interesting, but also terribly unstable.” 

She was dead right and I was crestfallen.

An amorphous gray area of our daily language had been clarified with concrete implications. I found myself mourning a word that I had come to depend on.

Here, I thought I was trying to achieve balance, but I was really just trying to be perfect.

Drat.

CAUTION: The above image may cause damage to your self-esteem

CAUTION: The above image is unattainable and may cause damage to your self-esteem

The word balance, it seems, is going the way of the word beauty. There are generations of women who were raised believing beauty was defined by the likes of Glamour, Vogue, Playboy, and Sports Illustrated. If their faces / bodies / clothes didn’t match those pictures, they had to deal with that fact, one way or another.

I was one of them.

It wasn’t until much later that I understood how much these images had skewed my understanding of the true meaning of beauty.

Now I feel, I have been duped again.

In previous posts, I explored the concept of balance as an inconsistent state, not a form of perfection. Being balanced is being accepting of what is happening in that moment and dealing with it. That includes the mess, grief, confusion, frustration and disappointments that life brings.

But that is not the way the word is being used in most places.

Balance has morphed into an airbrushed size 2, running errands in designer wear, delighting in all things social, and achieving professional success while never sweating through her blouse, screaming at her husband or forgetting to send a thank you note.

So thank you, Ms. Gilbert, for being the Paul Revere of semantics.

My vision of Elizabeth Gilbert

I didn’t see that one coming.

I forgot how vulnerable we all are to self-criticism cloaked in the language self-improvement.

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Meditate on This: The Most Imortant Pose

When I first practiced yoga, I was annoyed with savasana.  I could not wrap my mind around laying still for close to 20 minutes with all the things I needed to accomplish in a day.  As a result, I was missing a huge point. ShavasanaThe purpose of the asanas is to arrive at perhaps the most important pose, savasana (corpse pose). A place where the mind settles as the body rests and there is a natural transition into meditation. Just to drive home the importance of the pose, here is a list of its benefits:

  • a decrease in heart rate and the rate of respiration,
  • a decrease in blood pressure,
  • a decrease in muscle tension,
  • a reduction in general anxiety,
  • a reduction in the number and frequency of anxiety attacks,
  • an increase in energy levels and in general productivity,
  • an improvement in concentration and in memory,
  • an increase in focus,
  • a decrease in fatigue, coupled with deeper and sounder sleep, and
  • improved self-confidence.

Savansana allows us to detach, regroup and reset physically and mentally.

Students at a Sankrit School in daily practice

Students at a Sankrit School in daily practice

Often western culture places a low value on down time.  There is pride in the ability to hustle and power through without much thought to what is missed without real rest.

In 5th grade, I had an unfortunate incident related to this exact concept.  During home room, there was always a math exercise posted on the board.  We were instructed to spend our free time working on that until the bell rang and attendance was called.  It was never collected or graded.  It was an activity to keep us busy and the classroom quiet. I rarely completed it.  I chose to spend that time staring out the ground floor window at the suburban morning that was unfolding outside of our school.  I loved the few minutes before the bell rang  and our bustling day began. Sitting silent and staring, I remember wishing I could hop out the window and lay down in the large rolling lawn and stare at the clouds.

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One morning mid-trance I heard my name being barked from the front of the room.  I turned to see Mrs. D’s trim, imposing figure at her desk, beckoning me towards her with the crook of her finger.

When I arrived at her desk, she leaned in close, treating me to the distinct smell of coffee and something rotten on her breath.

Her sharp pale eyes drilled into me as she asked, “Do you know what you are?”

I don’t remember having a response, except a sickening twist in my gut.

“You are a dreamer.” She sneered loud enough for my classmates to hear. Her tone implying that this was not a good thing. “I see you staring out that window every morning. You do nothing.” mean-19025194883_xlarge She paused dramatically, surveying the classroom, nodding as if this was a consensus, then leaned back in, “You’ve got your head in the clouds and it’s not going to get you anywhere.”

Looking back, it is no great mystery why I dreamed of hopping out of that classroom window.

At the time, I didn’t have the back bone or the independence to stand up to Mrs. D’s berating. I assumed, given her position of authority and her seemingly expert status on things such as 5th grade math and social studies, that she was right and I was headed down a road to ruin.

Terrified and humiliated, I committed to “keeping my eye on the ball” and “cracking down” by completing the free time math exercises.

Scurrying back to my seat, I was determined to tamp down my dreamer tendencies.

I quickly discovered that was nearly impossible.  The anxiety around the free time math exercises held a tight grip on my brain. I was terrified those eagle eyes would catch me dreaming again. The figures I scratched down on my scrap paper seemed shifty and elusive. In those few minutes before the bell each day, my gaze and my mind wandered outside again and again.  However, the delight had been drained from my morning reprieve.

Mrs. D was right.  I was a dreamer. I spent the rest of that year in the dark shadow of her disappointment.

As a former teacher, I am furious with that woman.  As a yogini, I am equally impressed by my 5th grade discovery of morning meditation.  I would like to gather up my 10-year-old self in my arms and tell her Mrs. D was unfair and possibly dealing with some emotional issues of her own. meditate_istock_000016078540smallI am happy to report I have moved on from the incident, but there are times when I do battle with my own internal Mrs. D. I have had stretches of time where I run myself into the ground striving to feel accomplished or silently shamed myself for low productivity.

It’s my yoga practice that allows me to reflect on these moments and find balance.

To put the importance of meditation in perspective, think of the daily global effort made to secure time to recharge cell phones, ipads, and lap tops.

Shouldn’t that same priority be placed on finding time to recharge our minds and central nervous systems?

I like to envision a world where everyone can silence their internal Mrs. D and carve out even 5 minutes a day to meditate.

I would love to know your favorite method of meditation.  How do you fit it into your day? Do you have a meditative activity that allows you to recharge? What are your challenges to finding that time?

Take a moment and share out in the comments below.


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The Mother Pose

Around the age of 30, I apologized to my mother for my behavior between the ages of 13 to 19.  I felt it was the right thing to do.

At the time of my apology, I was single and had no children.  My empathy was not because I was going through the trials and tribulations of parenting.  It was perspective that prompted my act of contrition.  There were over ten years stretching between me and my distant adolescence. From my adult vantage point, I was appropriately ashamed.

Upon hearing my apology, just as appropriately, Mom laughed.  She accepted it though, with an all in a day’s work kind of response.  These days we still laugh about it.  But it was an important moment for us.

Mom & me

Mom & me

This year, I will be celebrating my 4th Mother’s Day as a mom.  Right now, my kid thinks I’m the bee’s knees.  She is so taken with me that there are times she will stop her constant busyness to hold my face in her sticky hands and tell me she loves me.  Over pizza the other day, looking at me across the pizzeria’s chipped linoleum table, she said, “Oh mommy, I love your eyes.”  Best pizza date ever.

I realize this will change. I do not look forward to it. There will be a day when she figures out I’m not so cool.  The prospect is chilling.

This particular fear gets me thinking about balancing poses.  There are days when your balance is off.  Even if it is not visible to others, balancing can become a truly daunting task when your mind is not right.

In a balance, our instructors might say, “Find your drishti” or “Soften your gaze” or “Breathe.” These are all great cues. But if you are wobbling away, drishti or no drishti, there are times when gravity or your own unsteadiness wins out and you just have to let go of the pose.

Looking back at those moments, I realize I get so caught up in my own thoughts about balancing, the act of balancing is impossible.  It goes something like this:

Here comes Tree. Ok, no big deal you’ve done this for years. Nothing to prove. Ok a little wobbly. Wait where is my drishti?  I like that spot. Or maybe I should look a little higher. Oops. Ok. ok. Little wobbly but graceful.  Trees blow in the wind. Am I throwing off the people behind me? Melting my shoulders down my back. What is that guy doing? a toe hold?  I can’t do that today. Should I try that? My foot hits the mat.

There are other days when I will literally float into a balance.  I honestly can’t recall what I might be thinking at those moments.  Its more of a feeling.  I am consciously taking all the cues.  Gazing softly at my drishti, breathing, relaxed, foot rooted, everything as it should be.  Bird of Paradise, here I come.

The difference between the two is in the first I am thinking about the moment, in the second I am in the moment.

So what does balancing have to do with my daughter’s impermanent adulation?

In yoga class, a drishti is an unmoving point of your choice that you focus on to assist your pose.  However, the full meaning of drishti isn’t limited to its use in yoga class. In Sanskrit, drishti can also mean a vision, a point of view, or intelligence and wisdom. Yoga Journal does a nice job of exploring the concept here.

Point of view. Wisdom. The only thing that allowed me to have the insight to apologize to mom for my teenage misdeeds and general jerkiness was my perspective.  My point of view gave me wisdom.

Today my daughter has made me the focus of her small scale idol worship.  (During the typing of this post she stopped me multiple times to look into my eyes, kiss my face and tell me she loved my ponytail.)  In a few years her perspective will change along with her opinions about my appearance. I could let the worry of all those changes headed my way trump this outpouring of child love. I could busy myself with what to expect instead of what is happening.

I choose, in this moment, to gaze softly upon this ever moving 3 year old vision that loves me, whether I’m wobbly or still.

 

I would love to hear about your favorite “mom” moment, whether it is about your mom or about being a mom. Please share in the comments.

 

Mother's Day 2013

Happy Mother’s Day!

 


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The Strongest Pose

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I’m a fan of the woman pictured above.  She caught my attention in 2012 doing a photo shoot with plankton eating whale sharks in the Philippines. Now she has appeared again, popping up on my yahoo home page, floating in lotus pose above a giant endangered manta ray.

This visual act of beauty and bravery is begging the observer to pay attention. And we should. These activists are using yoga to send an important message.

That is one reason why I am sharing the picture here.  Sharks and rays are endangered. They are over fished and their numbers are dwindling. It’s difficult to see these well documented predators as victims and in need of our help. They do not appeal to our empathetic instincts. In short, sharks are the public relations nightmare of the animal kingdom. Regardless of their violent reputation, they are an important part of our ecosystem and need protection.

The other reason I shared this picture is because it draws me back to a very specific moment.

In the 1990’s, I was part of a small group of backpackers making our way through the Australian outback in a crowded Land Rover.

red center

Gathered at Australia’s Red Center

Setting up camp next to our vehicle

Setting up camp next to our vehicle

On one leg of our tour, we crossed the 1700 miles from Adelaide to Perth across the Nullarbor Plain. The Nullarbor is a flat, almost treeless, arid area between southern and western Australia, located on the Great Australian Bight coast.

I took this photo on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain with a disposable camera.

I took this photo on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain with a disposable camera.

I snapped this photo on the other side of the tree pictured above, peeking over the 200 foot drop of The Great Australian Bight.

I snapped this photo on the other side of the tree pictured above, peeking over the 200 foot drop of The Great Australian Bight.

We had stopped on a deserted peninsula in Southern Australia and were wading into the waters of the Indian Ocean. The closest town was about an hour away – and when I say town, I mean gas station. We were up to our hips in the clear, crystal blue water when a large dark form appeared, swimming about 20 yards away from us. Two of my fellow travelers grabbed their snorkel gear and headed straight for it. I headed for dry land.

Exploring the peninsula.

As much as I am a supporter of the shark’s cause, I’m terribly afraid of them. I’m not interested in swimming with them, photographing them or bumping into them under any circumstance.

Turns out it was a manta ray.  It stayed in the shallows, letting them observe it closely for about 15 minutes, then it disappeared back into the deep. When my friends returned to the ankle deep water, where I had staked my claim, they were exhilarated. They talked excitedly about the connection they felt with the creature and the gentleness of the giant fish. I was so excited for them.

But never, even for a moment, have I regretted my decision to leave that dark looming figure alone.

I love the ocean and adventure, however I will not subject myself to that level of vulnerability. The probability of that large swimming shadow being a Great White was a little too high for my taste.

Which brings me back to the amazing picture of the woman and the manta ray. She is so obviously vulnerable. It reminded me of a quote my sister brought home from a yoga class, “You are your strongest when you have made yourself vulnerable, because in that moment you are taking a risk for what you want.”

The essence of that statement is captured in the photograph of Amy Ippoliti and the manta ray. She took an enormous risk to raise our awareness. Her drive to bring attention to the plight of these massive animals gave her the strength to be vulnerable.

So many times we look at vulnerability as a weakness, when really it might be the strongest pose we can take.


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The Easter Rabbit Yoga Pose

Easter Sunday 2013 I attended the early morning power yoga class at my favorite studio.  I wasn’t thinking much about the class.  I had a full day ahead of me and this was an item I was checking off my list.  I was getting something done for myself before I went to celebrate Easter.  A lot of people must have been doing that because the studio was full.

I knew our instructor John, a little.  Previously we had chatted about becoming certified in yoga and teaching school in Camden, NJ, which we had both done.  A few weeks before, he shared with our class that he had practiced yoga with his granddaughter.  He had said he was so glad that she would have that memory after he was gone.  I always thought of that precious image when I saw him.

Starting the class, he announced we would be practicing Rabbit Pose for Easter.  The last time I had done the pose was when I dropped in on a Bikram class years before.  When he mentioned it, I wasn’t sure if I could recall the exact pose.

 

Class started. When it came to the inversions portion of our class we all took Rabbit Pose, then we moved on.  It was a great class.  I remember feeling good, every challenge was an opportunity. Mostly, I was really impressed with myself that I made it to a early class on a Sunday.

During savasana, which is normally a welcomed respite, my mind was racing.  I had an outside egg hunt planned with the neighbors for the afternoon and it was supposed to rain. My mom and mother-in-law were coming over. I had a lot going on.

We sat up from savasana, legs crossed, hands at heart center.  Keeping our eyes closed we raised our hands to our third eye, opening our palms to let in love and light. Finally we bowed, saying “Namaste.”  Upon opening our eyes, each of us discovered a shiny plastic Easter egg at the top of our mat.  We opened our eggs to find two baby carrots.

It is silly, but I was overwhelmed with emotion.  I was incredibly touched by this small, festive gesture.  The sight of a bright blue egg, appearing where previously nothing had been, was the first true surprise I had experienced in a long time.  Hiding my misty eyed emotion, mostly because it was confusing to me, I waved a thank you to John and left the studio to move on with my day.

I thought about that class often.  It finally struck me why the carrot stuffed egg pulled at my heart strings.

It was John’s thoughtfulness, planning for a group of people who weren’t expecting anything except a class. In my case anyway, I was just happy to fit the class into my day.  There were probably a million reasons for John to not make the extra effort, but he did.  I pictured him at his kitchen counter or table diligently packing those baby carrots into Easter eggs.  How sweet!

Also, the shared experience of finding our eggs created an instant shared memory. It bonded the temporary tribe of our class. I remember giggling when I found it and looking to my neighbors.  When normally, I would have been hustling to roll up my mat and move on.

Lastly, he could have easily handed them out at the end of class or put them in a basket near the door, letting us know we were welcome to an egg.  Instead, as we rested, he silently placed one in front of each of us.  It was a whimsical act that harkened back to the wonder of egg hunts and the delight of finding an egg where you weren’t expecting it.

That is exactly what happened.  Without expecting it, I was swept up by the magic of that little plastic egg that held so much more than two carrots.

 


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The Cooking Pose: Clay Pot Practice

Clay Pot Cooking and Yoga.

They are ancient. They are earthy. They are delightful.

Both require patience and hydration.

The pots themselves are a lot like yogis.  They come in all shapes and sizes and each is unique.

I stumbled onto cooking with a clay pot when I came into the possession of a Romertofp Pot along with a little recipe book.  Having never seen one before I was intimidated, so I let it sit in its box, tucked away, until I uncovered it during a move.

My clay pot

My clay pot

At the time I discovered the pot, I was experiencing my own little cooking renaissance.  Until then, I had never considered myself much of a cook. Anytime spent in the kitchen was for organizing salads or reheating someone else’s dish. Throughout college and the years following, I depended on other’s culinary skills and the miracle of take out.

On New Year’s Day in 2005 I checked my office voicemail from home to learn that the company I was working for had declared bankruptcy and the entire workforce was laid off.  Suddenly, I had a lot of time on my hands.

Sitting on my couch, avoiding my job search, I thumbed through a macrobiotic cookbook given to me by my sister.  It was my jumping off point.  Before I knew it, cooking became a daily obsession.  I loved hunting down hard to find ingredients, bringing them home and following the happy formula of the recipe.  Nothing gave me pause.  I cooked with seaweed, umi plum vinegar, kuzu root and miso paste.  I got bolder and started examining other cookbooks.  Soon I was steaming my own bagels, roasting beets and whipping up chicken tamale casseroles.  By Mother’s Day I had the culinary confidence to cook a full meal for 10 people.

It was around this time I found the clay pot, never unboxed, sitting in a lonely corner of my basement.  This time, I saw it with new eyes.  Finding the clay pot, earthen and humble, all but forgotten, reminded me of getting my first bike.  I had never ridden before, but I was dying to take it for a spin.

What does this have to do with taking our practice off our mat?

First, the word practice. I had weeks of cooking practice under my belt.  My practice gave me confidence to try something new, something that had previously been indecipherable and intimidating. Just like yoga.  As we build our practice on our mat, the impossible becomes possible.

Second, one of my favorite yoga instructors has a great way of articulating an instruction.  In class we will be holding a particularly long pose and she will invite us to take the pose to the next level by saying “because you can.” For example, we will be in a side angle bind, holding through a long count of 5 and she will say “Let your heart shine to the ceiling, because you can.”  Speaking those three little words, she is empowering us to take advantage of all our abilities. You’ve got muscles, strength, flexibility and will. Use it. Because you can.

Looking back, rediscovering my clay pot was a “because you can moment.  I didn’t worry about my lack of experience or the baffling simplicity of the pot itself.  I had the pot, I had an oven and I could cook.

Taking your practice off your mat isn’t always a conscious thing.  It is something you just do  – because you can.

Click here to check out an unbelievably delicious Clay Pot Indonesian Beggar’s Chicken recipe.


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Advanced Yoga: The Swimsuit Pose

I was 40 minutes into my interval strength power hour at my local gym. Twelve other women and I were completing a series of walking lunges followed by weighted squats that left my legs quivering. The teacher called out, “You all know why we’re doing all these squats, right?” Right on cue, in breathless unison we answered, “Swimsuit season!” Privately, I was a little disappointed in myself.

Swimsuit season. I have mixed feelings on the subject. It is right around this time of year, the snow melts, we start walking outside without coats, the trees begin to bud and this phrase gets used over and over again. You turn on the TV or open a magazine and someone is gleefully letting you know with a heavy hint of trepidation, “Swimsuit season is coming!!!! Are you ready?”

Every time we reach for a second helping or decide to skip the gym, we hear it. “Tsk. Tsk. Maybe you ought to rethink that,” a well-intentioned friend might intimate with a knowing tilt of the head, “you know, swimsuit season.” Or maybe, like me, it is just the voice in your head.

I’m assuming that you too, have a voice similar to mine that will occasionally bark out your worst fears or weaknesses. It might murmur at you about your lack of industry during a binge watching marathon. Or it might nag at you about your terrific ability to procrastinate when it comes to cleaning the bathroom. Swimsuit season is the voice’s time to shine. The voice, unfortunately, focuses on the negative and is not much fun.

This is one of those moments that I lean heavily on my yoga practice to stop myself from giving too much power to the voice. I could spend and have spent an enormous amount of energy berating myself and my ancestors for my short-legged genetics.

Instead, this is a perfect opportunity to take our yoga practice off our mat. It is important to recognize when the negative chatter in our minds is causing unneeded anxiety. Let’s use our yoga practice to turn this negative ship around and head for kinder waters.

“Practice gratitude”

How do you become grateful while we are baring it all in a swimsuit, under the brutal glow of fluorescent lights in a department store dressing room?

You do it by practicing gratitude.

Think of all the amazing places your body has carried you. Your body has been there for you. It might have stretch marks or be thicker than you wish, but think about all it has done for you. It has fought for you through illness, tingled for you during pleasure, hustled for you to keep your schedule, wiggled for you when you wanted to dance and let your heart pound when you fell in love. Thank your body for being there. Don’t shame it for showing signs of the life you are living. So maybe your arms aren’t perfect or maybe your hips are wider than they were when you were sixteen. So what? Honor your body by throwing back your shoulders, straightening your spine and letting it enjoy the summer.

Nice, right? It feels good to feel good about you. But maybe that little voice isn’t ready to surrender to positive thoughts. Maybe it has some more ammunition.

You have been there, sitting by the pool and she walks by. It doesn’t really matter who she is. It’s the fact that she looks stunning in her bikini and to add insult to injury, she is carrying her nine month old child on her cellulite free hip.

In a flash, the little voice can gain the upper hand. It might cause you to question your choice of swimsuit. You might start to shame yourself for not covering up your belly that day or choosing a suit that showed your thighs. You might suddenly feel embarrassed on your walk from your chair to the water.

How do we tap into our inner yogi at that moment?

“This is not a competition”

Swimsuit season is not a competition. Let me repeat. Swimsuit season is not a competition. This can be a confusing statement because here in America, we have been brought up on bathing suit competitions. (Thank you Miss America, Miss Universe and countless other pageants.) Everywhere you look online or on TV people are being judged on their appearance. It is the reality of our culture.

Yes, that woman at the pool has been dealt the perfect hand in the genetics department. You might not have been. But unless you have the celebrity status of Gwyneth Paltrow or Hillary Clinton, no one will be comparing pictures of the two of you on the pages of a national magazine. You are the only true judge in your life.

When you enter the yoga studio you learn very quickly that different people have different abilities. There are some poses that will come naturally to you, there will be others that you will always be working toward. For example, arm balances are a challenge for me. I marvel at other’s ability to effortlessly tilt into crow. Their ability does not make me feel less about my practice.

Let’s take that attitude to the pool. Do you really want to follow the negative train of thought that somehow, on some level, this lovely woman is better than you because she looks better in a swimsuit? No, you don’t. You and your body are better than that.

Think about the favorite people in your life, the people you truly admire. The people who changed your life for the better or made you who you are. Picture them in your mind. Think about why you love them.

Are any of them your favorite because of how they look in a swimsuit?

I’m hoping your answer is a definitive “No.”

Let’s take this swimsuit season off your mat. Practice gratitude. Remember this is not a competition. Our bodies deserve that and so do we.

You or your little voice might be thinking, “Easier said than done.”

That’s true, but aren’t most things worth doing easier to talk about than to actually put into practice?