WiseWomenVT

Sharing Our Stories in 2021 – April

THE "SHARING OUR STORIES" PROJECT

April's Story by Beth Bokan

We are delighted to share Beth Bokan’s beautiful story about her mother for our April blog post.  Beth describes an unfolding mother-daughter story that may be familiar to many of us as daughters. Her sensitive and thoughtful reflections on her changing perceptions of her mother help us to see how patience, love and effort can deepen and strengthen this very important connection between two women. Beth reminds us that no matter what a relationship has been in the past, it is possible to find common ground and understanding.

Beth Bokan

Welcome to spring and thanks for reading our April story about patience, understanding and new beginnings.

Love, Carol and Vv

Beth Bokan is a devoted mother who brings a strong intuition, patience, kindness and wisdom to her very positive relationship with her delightful grown-up son, daughter and step-daughter and to being a grandmother to two precious grandchildren.  Her listening skills, sense of humor and deep caring for others are also assets in her multiple roles which include sister, daughter, aunt, wife, and dear friend.   Beth is a 20-year federal employee where she serves as a supervisor and uses her many skills to provide support to colleagues and staff.  Beth lives in Swanton, Vermont, with her husband, two sweet cats and two adorable dogs.

Beth's Story about her Mother and Their Relationship

I chose to write this story about my mother to show that while not every mother-daughter relationship is idyllic, it is possible to find a place of comfort and peace in the relationship.

My mother, Phyllis Morehouse, was born on April 1,1948 in Johnsburg, New York, fourth in a family of 10 children. Her father passed away when she was 12 years old leaving her mother to care for their large family. They were a close family that endured their share of hard times. They grew up without a lot of luxuries and the older kids were expected to help care for the younger ones.

When my mother was 19, she met my father, Chuck Shuler. They married in 1969 when she was 21, had my brother Ray the following year and I was born the year after that, in 1971. My sister Becky was later born in 1983. Our family was like most others, young with big dreams and my parents tried to make our life as enjoyable as they could.

Baby Beth and her Mother Phyllis

I began my life with my mom like most little girls do. I had happy memories of her being home, making my lunch after I got home from kindergarten and letting me watch the Andy Griffith show. I remember her putting me down for naps, fixing my hair and making sure I had pretty clothes to wear. I knew my mother loved me. As time went on, my parents experienced financial difficulties that made life very stressful. The financial issues continued for several years. Along with other factors, the struggle to care for and provide for her children was trying and changed my mother in many ways. She suffered from depression and anxiety, eventually relying heavily on my brother and I to take care of most of the house chores and even contribute to the household financially when we had summer jobs.

When I was in my early teens, I clearly remember beginning to resent my mother for various reasons. I couldn’t understand why it was so hard to financially provide for my siblings and me. I knew it wasn’t just her responsibility, yet most of my anger was directed at her. I was frustrated because of the pressure put on me and Ray to keep the house clean and help take care of Becky. I was baffled by the fact that she was not confident in the way she handled herself. I found myself thinking I did not want to be like mother. As a young girl that was a very sad, sobering thought. All girls should look up to their mothers and want to emulate them; at least that’s what I believed.

Young adult Beth with her mom

As I navigated my teens and early adulthood, I made every effort to be strong, independent and take care of myself. I moved out of my parents’ house at 17 when I went to college, only returning for a brief time two or three years later. I worked full time, had my own apartment and tried my best to be opposite of the person I thought my mother was. Unfortunately, during this time, I really attempted to shut my mother out. I did not want her advice or direction. I thought I was capable of handling my life my way. I realize it is normal for young adults to want to live life on their own terms, but for me it was another step in my process of not becoming my mother.

A few years after living on my own, I got married. I had my son Evan when I was 24 and my daughter Emma at 27. My kids’ father and I made a nice home for them and tried to give them the “all-American” childhood. My parents would come to visit, and I often brought Evan to New York to see them. My mom clearly loved being a nana and doted on Evan. After Emma was born it was evident how much she loved both kids and I saw my mother really blossom as a grandmother. She and I had started to grow closer and she became my sounding board for child-rearing issues. I loved seeing this new side of her. However, after Emma was born it became difficult to make frequent trips to New York. When I stopped making so many trips to New York, the rift between her and I began to resurface. I couldn’t fathom why my parents, especially my mom, would not try to visit their grandkids more often. After all, my kids were their only grandchildren at that time. I was hurt because I felt like we weren’t important, and I hurt for my kids because they didn’t get to see their nana regularly.

Beth, Mom, Brother

Throughout the next several years my relationship with my mother remained strained at times. One thing I began to realize, though, was that my mother never once turned her back on me. I had some rough times through my late twenties and thirties, divorcing twice and suffering from bouts of depression. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t manage to stay married and it really affected my sense of self-worth. My mother never wavered in her belief that I would come out of those years stronger than ever. I was still skeptical of her support and didn’t open my heart to her completely, but it was comforting to me to know that I could turn to her when I needed to.

When I was 42, I finally met a man who accepted me despite my faults and quirks; we got married 4 years later. My mother was fully accepting that I was going to try marriage a third time. I was still embarrassed that I had two divorces under my belt, but my mom never made me feel that I was less worthy because I hadn’t yet been successful in marriage. She loved my new husband Rick and was happy that I was finally happy. Through my mother’s continual acceptance, I began to see her for the sensitive, kind, loving woman she really was. I no longer focused on her weaknesses. I no longer felt anger toward her. It was a true awakening for me.

Four years ago, not long after I married Rick, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. I remember being so worried that I’d lose her. We were finally becoming closer and my relationship with her was very special. We were friends and enjoyed many laughs and good conversations. I wanted so badly for her to recover so we could keep moving toward the relationship I always wanted with her.

Sadly, after months of continual hospital stays, it became apparent that my mom would not survive her illness. Her body was ravaged, the cancer had spread to her brain and she could not handle any more treatment. When my family met with her doctors to learn of her prognosis, they told us she had hours to days to live. My brother, sister and I were devastated. The person we had grown to rely on for unconditional love and support was going to leave us. She had suffered so much in the seven months since her diagnosis, yet she fought the disease with amazing grace and dignity, never once complaining. She was a true superhero. I knew at that moment that I wanted to see her out of this life with as much love and comfort as she had given my siblings and me. I told my brother and sister I wanted to stay with our mother at the hospital through her last days and they were gracious enough to let me step in and take care of her.

Beth and her Mother

The next five days were probably the most meaningful in my life so far. I stayed with my mom almost 100% of the time, feeding her, keeping her comfortable, helping the nurses change her bed and clean her. I slept next to her, held her hand and stroked her head when she was upset. I polished her fingernails and put makeup on her so she felt pretty. When she lost function on her left side and was afraid she wouldn’t be able to hold my sister’s new baby when she was born, I comforted her and told her not to worry, we’d make sure she could hold the baby. I wanted nothing more than to make sure my mother left this world knowing how much she was loved.

About halfway through those last five days, my mother exemplified the true love that mothers feel for their children. It was September 19th, the day before my birthday. Even though my mother was not able to communicate well and not always lucid at this point, she said, “tomorrow is your birthday.” When we woke up the next day she said, “happy birthday.” I said, “Mom, you remembered.” She replied, “you’re my baby, I would never forget your birthday.” I knew at that moment how much my mother loved me. I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be just like her. My mother passed away three days later. Though I regret not realizing sooner how wonderful my mother really was, I find comfort in knowing she and I were able to find peace and love in our relationship before she died.

Garden Path
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Sharing Our Stories in 2021 – March

THE "SHARING OUR STORIES" PROJECT

March's Story by Sherry Senior

Welcome to our March blog post written by Sherry Senior.  Sherry’s story features her reflections on the life of her fabulously interesting mother, Gillian Senior.  While many mothers and daughters have close and loving relationships, the relationship between Sherry and Gillian is such a special one as the two often bring their artistic synergy to productive and exciting new projects together.  Sherry’s narrative about Gillian’s life and their relationship is heartwarming and inspirational and invites us to examine our own selves as mothers, as daughters, and as strong women.

                               Thanks for reading another beautiful SHARED STORY with us!

                  Love, Carol and VV

Sherry Senior

Sherry Senior is a woman whose creativity finds its way into everything she does.  Through her design business, Sherry Senior Designs, www.sherrysenior.com. Sherry brings imagination and beauty to local homes and businesses. Roadhouse Studios,  www.roadhousestudiosvt.com, which she owns with her mother, Gillian Senior, provides fun and educational opportunities for artists of all ages.  Her Essentrics classes now on zoom use her teaching skills and elegant dance ability to get her students happily moving and stretching.  A busy professional, mother of two wonderful adolescent boys and wife to a busy fellow entrepreneur, Sherry also uses her always positive energy for snowboarding, biking, climbing and adventuring with her family and friends.

Sherry's Story About Her Mother

I would like to thank Carol and Veronica for creating this platform for women to tell their stories. I am by no means a writer and feel completely out of my comfort zone whenever asked to write anything, but I quickly jumped to the challenge as I knew an opportunity like this can only mean growth.  When thinking about what to write it didn’t take me very long to decide about the subject matter. 

Have you ever wondered about the people in your life and how they have affected, influenced or impacted it?  It may have been a coach, teacher, mentor, parent, sibling or good friend that has made an undeniable difference in the person that you are today.  For me, it is without question my mother.

2021-03 Gillian

My mother, Gillian or as most call her “Jinx” is probably one of the most extraordinary people that I have ever known.  Not just because she is my mother, but because of who she is and what she has overcome to be that person. 

In 1931 Jinx was born in Mumbai India formerly known as Bombay.   She was born to English parents and attended boarding schools in India and Switzerland.  She rarely came home for the holidays and was sent to the same schools as her younger brother primarily to look after him. Her family life was remote and practically non-existent with her parents.  They even divorced without her knowing until 4 years after the fact.  My mother never went on to college as her brother did; back then it was often considered a waste of money to send girls on to higher education.

2021-03 Gillian Jaeger

A natural beauty, in her late teens and early 20’s my mother did a stint of modeling for magazines such as Vogue and Good Housekeeping in India and New York.  She met my American father in India at the age of 20, and they married soon after.  My father worked for a large U.S. advertising agency which brought them to live in a number of European countries until settling just outside of Montreal Canada in 1965, where I grew up.  During those early years of marriage my mother played the role of corporate housewife and mother to myself and my 2 older brothers.

Soon after moving to Canada my father decided to leave the corporate world and pursue a career as a fiber artist, fulfilling his artistic drive.  Together with my mother, they started a weaving business out of our home, making wall hangings, large tasseled throw pillows and ponchos. They were mostly self-taught and learned as they went. Before too long they became very skilled at weaving. I remember as a small kid crawling around the looms in our living room and helping to stuff large pillows.  It was an exciting and adventurous place to grow up.  This business did well for a while and my parents earned national acclaim for many of their creations. 

My father branched out and started making very large woven sculptures that were commissioned to hang in the lobbies and boardrooms of large companies, and my mother continued to make woven pillows, ponchos and other clothing items.  After some very bad business decisions by my father and a fateful fire that burned down his studio, my parents were left in financial ruin.  My parents divorced, my father moved to the United States to start anew and my mother was left to pick up the pieces. She was awarded no alimony and chose not to pursue child support as she knew my father was unable to pay.  As a single mother this was a very difficult time being left to raise her three children on her own.

2021-03 Gillian Weaving Business

Over the next five years my mother built her weaving business, employing a number of people and had a series of retail stores in which she now sold upscale hand-woven jackets and sweaters that she designed.  These items were also being sold to high end boutiques and resorts across Canada.  As if this was not enough to keep her busy, she also opened a bedding store that sold antique beds and one of a kind handmade quilts of her design.   Her creativity seemed to have no bounds. 

In 1980 the financial recession hit and for the next several years my mother’s businesses suffered.  As a resourceful business woman, she looked for ways to keep her business going and took a chance by opening up a satellite store in Marblehead MA. As a young 16-year-old girl my mother and I made the decision that I would run this store on my own for the next few summers. This was my first independent experience away from home and one of many experiences that helped to forge my independent spirit. 

A few years later I moved to Toronto where I had been accepted to Ryerson University and started my studies in Fashion Design and Merchandising.   Soon after, my mother sold her bedding store and moved her weaving business to Toronto to be closer to me and to seek a fresh new start.  Within a short period of time she managed to get her woven clothing business (Jinx Senior Designs) back up and running.  She moved her business into a studio warehouse, furnished it with looms, and cutting tables and before long had a flourishing haute couture clothing business in which she employed about 12-15 people.  At this point she was selling her sought-after creations all over Canada and now into the U.S.  This business was not without its ups and downs but what I witnessed my mother build was both inspirational and remarkable.  What was even more unbelievable was that all of these accomplishments were born from a woman that had no formal training in either business or fashion design, just an awful lot of courage, grit and tenacity.

2021-03 Gillian Jinx Senior

Her business grew and was very successful for another 25+ years.  During that time a lot happened. I graduated from college, worked in Toronto and decided the fashion industry was not for me.  In my early 20’s I moved to Burlington, VT and worked for a company my brothers had started.  Me and my two brothers now all resided in Burlington, VT. 

We have always been a very close family and my mother wasn’t happy just visiting us on holidays so she bought an investment property in Shelburne VT with my two brothers so that she could be closer to all of us.  This property had a great retail storefront that allowed her to open up a boutique that was very cool and eclectic selling gift/home décor, while simultaneously running her clothing company back in Toronto.  Fortunately, she had a wonderful business partner that allowed her to do both. Eventually at the age of 65 my mom decided to close her clothing company in Toronto and live full time in Vermont running her store in Shelburne and trying her hand as a watercolor artist. I was about 30 at this time and decided to start my own Decorative Painting Company following my mother’s entrepreneurial footsteps. 

Together we bought a duplex which was just around the corner from her store. I lived with a roommate on the bottom half and we rented off the top floor apartment.  It just so happened that my mother lived in the apartment behind her store so we were now living only a few hundred yards from one another. This was a wonderful time for both of us, as we got together almost daily for tea in the adjoining garden, sharing dreams of the future and bouncing creative ideas off of one another.  My mom loved that garden and worked hard to make it beautiful.  Did I mention that she found time along the way to become a master gardener?  My mom’s gardens were and still are beautiful and so artfully created.   Retirement really never suited my mother, for in her mid 60’s she went on to get her real estate license and bought several investment properties, a few of which she still property manages. 

Throughout our lives my mom and I have always been extremely close, sharing similar views and sensibilities about so many things.  When my parents divorced, I thought my world would end but somehow my mom managed to pick up the pieces and forge ahead with a strength I could not truly comprehend as a 12-year-old girl.  It was only as I became a young adult did I come to realize the extraordinary sacrifices she made in order to make mine and my brothers lives quite normal, safe and loving. 

As a young girl, when it was just me and mom she would often bring me along on buying trips for her stores. We would travel to the nearby cities of Montreal and Toronto and I would watch her wheel and deal with vendors like a pro.  I loved these outings and was always amazed at what mom accomplished.  I was so impressed and proud. She would have me work the trade shows, selling her creations to buyers from all over Canada. These were valuable experiences and would have a significant impact on the direction of my own life.   It was not just that my mom was this amazing self-made entrepreneur but that she went about it with such grace, humility and integrity.  She had very little training and no prior experience in what she was doing; she simply was learning as she went. She never seemed to let what she did not know slow her down. She was simply learning on the job and letting her innate talents guide her.    Even when times were tough, and they were, she never threw in the towel, and rarely had a negative attitude about our situation.  She had this inner strength and positivity that was unwavering.  

My mom was very liberal and gave me a lot of freedom to explore the world.  Very unlike the helicopter parenting that seems to have taken over today. She trusted me to a fault and in return I never wanted to let her down.   She was fun and outgoing and I only have the best memories whenever we were together. She accepted me for who I was and never tried to push me to become someone I wasn’t.   She made me feel grateful for all that I had.  I remember on one occasion as a teenage girl playing volleyball on the high school team, I had come to her after a game and complained about my legs. I said something like “mom, look at my thighs, they are so fat.  I hate them!  Why can’t I have nice skinny thighs?”  I will never forget her response, “you should be happy you have thighs!”  That was a kick in the pants for me.  She was right!  I had great sturdy athletic legs that worked.  She just needed to remind me.  She was good at that! 

My mother is incredibly well read.  She has always had an affinity for books, not so much fiction or novels but preferred to learn about real people, their lives and events in history. Because of her passion for reading, her knowledge of the world is vast.  I was always amazed by her breadth of knowledge.  This came to be very useful on many occasions none more so than during my college years. I remember taking an art history class and I needed to write a paper about the Renaissance period.  I was living at home during these years and I happened to go into my mom’s bedroom one night and asked her what she knew about that art period.  Within about an hour or so I had all the information I needed for my paper. I had to write quickly!  I needed to cut her off because she was going deep!    Forget going to the library, I had mom.  

I attribute a lot of my mother’s success to her positive outlook on life.  To say she is an optimist is an understatement.  Her positive can-do attitude is so uplifting that it’s hard to complain in her presence; she will always spin your negativity into a positive direction. At times it can be annoying because sometimes you just want someone to get down in the dumps with….she is not going there!  I see this positive attitude on a daily basis and it is never lost on me and the importance it has had in shaping my own approach to life.

2021-03 Sherry and Gillian

Over the years as I have grown from a young girl into an adult, mother and wife our relationship has taken on more of a friendship then that as a mother and daughter and in some ways, I consider my mother to be my best friend. I feel so fortunate that we have lived most of our lives in close proximity to one another as we have been able to share and enjoy so many life adventures together.  We love to laugh, especially at our favorite brit coms and love to talk about travel, art and fashion among other things. 

My mom has always had this great earthy yet sophisticated style that shows up in everything; decorating, fashion, cooking and gardening to name a few.  Her home is always warm, inviting, beautiful and full of life.   In high school I remember I loved to raid her closets and borrow one of her many flowing peasant dresses that I would pair with one of her big chunky belts then tie it together with my old Frye boots.  I thought I looked amazing because I looked a little like her.  All this style was very natural and real, void of any pretense. 

What I love most about being with my mom is that we have an unspoken understanding of one another.  We share similar sensibilities about so many things that we just get each other.  We often never make big decisions without the input of the other.  This can sometimes be annoying to some of our family members (mostly my husband).  If mom decides on a new couch or I on a new paint color for my bedroom, a stamp of approval usually is required from one or the other.   That’s just how it is!  Sounds a little codependent but I assure you it isn’t.  We just really like each other and respect one another’s opinion. 

I have to mention the fact that my mom has a great sense of humor and is easily amused.  She really enjoys finding the perfect greeting card for the right occasion.  Before anyone opens their present mom always says “did you read the card,” and is usually laughing well before anyone has had a chance to read their card.   This gets us all laughing despite what’s inside the card. 

My mom is now in her late 80’s and as I mentioned still has her hands in many real estate investments and is still property manager for a couple of them. She lives independently, drives and shops for herself.  She also makes a point to swim a few times a week. Mom has this amazing energy and of course her positive attitude that makes it difficult to see her as an older person.  She is the matriarch to our entire family of siblings, spouses and grandchildren.  There is nothing more important to her than the happiness and wellbeing of her entire family.  She is a sounding board to all of our issues whether they be of business or of a personal nature.   We value her opinion more than anything as she has lived this life full of challenge, risk and reward that brings perspective that is very wise and unique. 

My mom has been an amazing role model and guiding light throughout my life.  I feel so incredibly fortunate that she has paved the road for me and my brothers in such a remarkable way.   So much of who I am as a mother, a wife, a sister and a business owner is because of her and the life she has shown me.

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Sharing Our Stories in 2021 – February

THE “SHARING OUR STORIES” PROJECT

February’s Story by Cari Kelley

We are delighted to present the first story in our “Sharing Our Stories” Project.  Cari wrote this post on February 5, the birthday of her fabulous twins, Jacquie and Calvin.   Cari’s story, “They Have Taught Me So Much,” beautifully describes her experience as a mother.  Reflecting on that early birthday morning twenty-three years ago, Cari graciously shares her journey with the twins. She reminds us all of an important lesson:  parents may be their children’s first teachers, but parents can also learn much from their children.     


Happy February and Happy Valentine’s Day!

Love, Carol and VV

Cari Kelley is the very smart and very devoted mother of two loving and amazing children, Jacquie and Calvin.   She works full-time as the Workplace Donor Relations Manager at United Way of Northwest Vermont. Cari also runs her own travel business, www.carimeawaytravels.com and with her daughter, Jacquie, she is the co-founder of www.wheelsforjacquiefoundation.org

THEY HAVE TAUGHT ME SO MUCH

I agreed to write the column for February a few months back and was happy to do it. There is a specific reason why I chose February and I have tried starting this article a number of times with no luck. Well, today, February 5th, is the reason and I am just going to let it flow.

Twenty-three years-ago today, at 7:15 am and 7:23 am, Jacqueline Marie and Calvin John, entered this world weighing in at exactly 5 pounds each. I entered the hospital, during the worst ice storm in Vermont, after a visit to my doctor who informed me that I was in labor. I was 30 weeks pregnant and it was looking like they would be delivered and end up in NICU. I am pleased to tell you that because of the tremendous team at then Fletcher Allen Hospital, now University of Vermont Medical Center, I was placed on hospital bedrest and we were able to postpone my delivery for another 30 days. They never needed to visit the NICU and came home with me two days after delivery. There is a whole story that I could write about my experiences during this hospitalization, but truly, the meat of this story is in the years after the birth.

For the most part, Calvin and Jacquie were healthy, happy babies and keeping up with all the growth goals that the doctors like to see. Jacquie did have a few years where she had febrile seizures (seizures that would happen when she would spike a fever), which were truly scary and caused lots of tests and ambulance rides, but we were assured that they would pass in time. She had her last at the age of six…thank goodness!

It was at the time that they started to learn to walk that there was some question about Jacquie’s gait. I took her to the pediatrician, and he thought that it was most likely knobby-knees and her gait would straighten out in time. Something about that diagnosis did not sit well with me and my mother’s intuition was telling me to explore it further. Luckily for us, she was also under the care of a neurologist for her seizures, so at our next appointment, I asked him to watch her walk. She walked and ran up and down the hallway outside his office, and by the look on his face, I knew something was not right. He ordered a test but was pretty sure he knew what the result would be. After a muscle biopsy, in which I had to lay on top of her to keep her still (something I will never forget), the diagnosis came through; Spinal Muscular Atrophy, or SMA for short, a form of Muscular Dystrophy that atrophies the muscles.

Her father and I were devastated and did as much research as possible on this disease. The good news is that it has no impact on the brain. The bad news, she would slowly lose her ability to walk. Jacquie was born determined and we knew that we would take this on, day by day, and help her along her life’s path. In first grade, she was given an award by her physical education teacher and I will always remember what he said about her, “When you look up the word determined in the dictionary, there is a photo of this person there. She never gives up and pushes herself hard, and for this reason, I am pleased to present Jacquie this award.” You can only imagine the pride and emotion that I felt for her. I have raised her to verbalize what she needs, stand up for what she feels is right, and lean on me when she needed to.

Jacquie Kelley

Through it all, that is exactly what she has done. Jacquie graduated Magna Cum Laude from Providence College in May 2020, with a degree in Political Science and a minor in Music. She is currently living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, while her service dog, Moose (a 90-pound Golden Retriever) obtains his international certification. She will be attending the University of Leeds this fall (after her program was deferred because of the pandemic) for her master’s degree in Disability Studies. She will go on and advocate for the differently-abled, and I have no-doubt, will make her mark in this world. She uses an electric scooter to get around and is very independent.                                                                           

While Jacquie was struggling with her health, Calvin started to show signs of his own struggles. At one point, one of the mental health workers that was part of his team told me that he has, “survivor’s guilt”. It took me a long-time to get my head around what was going on for him, but as I reflect on it, I can see what they were trying to tell me. He just didn’t understand why his twin sister had SMA and he didn’t. I remember one day, when they were very young, he said to Jacquie, “Jacquie, if I could take your weak legs, I would.” That’s a lot for a little guy to carry.

It really all started in kindergarten when the decision was made to separate the two and give each of them their own classroom of kids. Calvin started to show signs of anger and aggression, something we never saw in preschool. There were lots of meetings and discussions about whether or not we should put them together, but in the end, it was decided to try and continue to help him in his own space. By the time he was in first grade, kids were starting to understand that he was different than they were, and many of them would push his buttons to see him explode. Once that happened, he would be sent to the principal’s office, and most of the time, sent home. This would happen regularly, and it came to the point where the school felt that Calvin needed different schooling.

During these formative years, he was learning the skill of “fight or flight” and his anxiety and depression was of major concern. The public school pushed us to enroll him in a school that addresses behavior concerns that is run through a mental health agency. After receiving a call at work that Calvin was under the table in his first-grade classroom, refusing to come out, and driving to the school to help him through this situation, we agreed that the move might make sense. So, he moved to The Baird School in the middle of his first-grade year.

He stayed at Baird until his 5th grade year, when I demanded that he return to the public school because he had lost so much of his academic learning. It was a fight. During an assessment meeting, the principal of the public school (who was different than the one that was there when he left) insisted that he be able to stay in the classroom 80% of the time. I looked at him and said, “I want everyone to be quiet for 30 seconds. (After 30 seconds) Now, you tell me that you could stay in a classroom with all the screaming, yelling, and swearing that is going on in the hallways right now.” He looked at me and gave in. Calvin would be returning to school that fall.

Calvin continued to struggle through school. I was so proud to see him walk across the stage of his high school graduation in June of 2016. He had worked so hard, and even though his internal struggles were something that we fought head-on, and still do to this day, he has the best sense of humor and the biggest heart.

Calvin Kelley

Calvin currently lives in Wisconsin, which is close to my family, and is doing very well. He has a wonderful girlfriend, who is solid, and they truly make a great team. For Calvin, it is all about his love of helping people. He has served as a Volunteer Firefighter when he lived in Vermont and is anxious to re-engage with a fire department where he finally settles. He loves the work and the firefighting family. I know that he will always be in a job that he is giving back and giving the best of himself.

Their father and I divorced in 2010, and shortly after, I found my true partner in life, Greg. He has no judgment, has been a positive father figure for my children, supportive, kind, and loving. He is truly my best friend and I am truly blessed. In the midst of all the pain from years ago, I would have never thought that I would find the peace that I have today.

I love my work in the community and I work full-time at United Way of Northwest Vermont as the Workplace Donor Relations Manager. Being a part of this incredible team and seeing the impact of the work that we do is inspiring. I am pleased to be able to help raise the funds needed to help others.

Jacquie with her Service Dog

In November, Jacquie and I formed the Wheels for Jacquie Foundation (www.wheelsforjacquiefoundation.org) a non-profit Foundation that works to provide transportation for the differently-abled. We do need to start by fundraising for Jacquie’s van, but will continue the work to help others. I could write an entire article just on the process of obtaining a driver’s license and accessible vehicle. I also own my own travel business (www.carimeawaytravels.com), and proceeds from the business will help the Foundation. Please keep us in mind as the world starts to travel again 😊.

My mother has been my rock and supported me throughout my life. I feel both of my grandmothers with me always, who shaped my core values. This morning, after wishing Calvin a Happy Birthday, he sent me this text:

“You’ve helped me more than you know Mom. I couldn’t ask for more. I am grateful for everything. Your life lessons are the best gift I could ask for…”

With that said, I would say that the challenges and pain have made us all grow stronger, and for that I am forever grateful.

Gratitude Heart
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Sharing Our Stories in 2021 – January

Announcing the “Sharing Our Stories Project”

Dear WWVT Blog readers:

Hello!   Welcome to this month’s blog. My dear grand-daughter Vv and I are excited to be collaborating on a new project. As the calendar turns to January 2021, we are delighted to announce that the blog is about to take a turn in a different direction.  During 2020, we enjoyed sharing the “Simple Gifts of Gentle Yoga” each month; however, we decided it was time to bring in some other perspectives and share the work of writing each month.  After some thought and discussion, we decided it would be interesting and fun to be able to feature some of the stories of our amazing and strong women friends and girl-friends.  We began contacting some of the women and girls in our lives and asking them to consider writing guest posts on the blog.  We asked them to consider sharing their stories, art, and more about their experience being daughters, granddaughters, mothers, and grandmothers.   We were thrilled with the quick and enthusiastic response we received and are now ready to launch this fun project.

We are very happy to announce that each month, beginning in February, a WISEWOMAN or WISEGIRL we know will be sharing her story here at wisewomenvt.com/blog.   We are sure that 2021’s eleven shared stories will be as smart and interesting as the smart and interesting women writing them.  We are giving our guest authors quite a bit of room to decide what they want to share and how they want to share it. We are hoping that after you read the instructions (below) that you might consider doing a story!  We have just a few slots remaining for stories, so if you’d like to be a guest writer, send us an email at carol@wisewomenvt.com and we will work with you to schedule a month for a story.

Our only instructions to our writers were these:

Please send us your story about your experience as a daughter, grand-daughter, mother or grandmother.   You can choose one of these roles to write about or you may want to share your experience in more than one of the roles. You may want to talk about what it was like to be your mother’s daughter. Maybe that was a gift or a nightmare.  Or you might write about how you didn’t really know your grandmother, but wish that you did.  If you didn’t know your biological grandmother, maybe another amazing woman provided grandmothering to you. Maybe you want to talk about the joys and challenges of being a mother, both in the past and in the present.  Or maybe you want to describe how being a grandmother changed your whole sense of yourself and made you revisit your relationship with your own grandmother. You can include photos, poems, art work, or anything you like to describe your experience and your feelings. We understand that each of us has her own unique experiences and it is important that you share yours as only you can share it.  You may be an experienced writer or someone who feels like writing for a blog is just exactly the kind of new stretch and challenge you need in 2021.  Maybe your story will be happy or sad or funny. Maybe it will be surprising or scary. Maybe it will be calming or worrying. Maybe it will be a way to share a significant learning you made about yourself and other important women in your life.   Or maybe it will be a way to share some uncertainty you are still trying to untangle.  Whatever your story is, we know it will be something only you can share.  And we know that the WISEWOMAN or WISEGIRL inside you is working on a way to better understand and share what you need to understand and share as you work your way through writing your story.   Stories should be between 1500 and 4000 words and should be submitted in a word document by the 5th of the month your story will appear in the blog.  Thank you so much for your willingness to contribute to the “Sharing Our Stories” Project.

Watch for the stories to start appearing in February!

The writers have their instructions and their writing begins. We anxiously await the shared stories we are about to read together. We hope you will enjoy this year of stories from WISEWOMEN and WISEGIRLS.

Love,
Carol and Vv

Mother Daughter Hiking
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Twelve Essential Gifts of Yoga for 2020 – December

December's Gift - Peace

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“Go into this week with the attitude that your peace, your health of mind, and your heart mean more than getting everything else done.” S.C. Lourie

At last…. December and time for the final month of 2020’s “Gifts of Gentle Yoga.” This morning as I sat down to write about December’s gift, I found myself avoiding putting fingers to keyboard and struggling to write a single word.  Unsure about how to push myself into action, I felt anything but peaceful.  And this feeling of “anything but peaceful” was all too familiar.

Right here, right now, I thought to myself.   What is going on?  I was feeling tired and anxious and considered just not writing this month’s post. Maybe no one would notice if I just skipped this one.  I thought about the possibility of at least changing the topic. Maybe that would help?

I had planned 12 specific topics and 11 were done.  So, what was in my way? Dragging my feet and my fingers, I felt that familiar “why-do-things-have-to-seem-so-hard-these-days” feeling rising inside.  What is going on? Should I change my original plan? How can I possibly do that?

I thought about the past year.  I struggled with the tiny video I was rewinding in my mind about this blog writing process.  Looking back, January 2020 seemed like it was way more than 11 months ago. It was another lifetime ago in a different reality in a year that would never end.  And yet I wondered where all that time actually went. What happened? How have 334 days possibly slipped by?

I thought about my initial purpose for this blog.  What was I hoping for?  What in the WORLD was I thinking when I decided this?  I considered what I had accomplished by all this pondering and writing month by month and whether any of it had any value.  I wondered about what I or anyone else might have learned from any of this effort. What was the meaning of all that?

I found myself thinking about the future and wondering, “now what will I do for 2021?”    I promised myself I would do these 12 gifts and now I’m soon (hopefully) going to be finished. The back of my mind seemed to be pushing little question marks forward into my awareness. As the ???s kept nudging forward, I kept shoving them to the back.  How could I figure out next year when I couldn’t even get started on this month? What happens next?

I found myself scrolling through emails, poking around online looking for inspiration, shuffling my papers, wondering if I should go grab more coffee, watching the clock, and dreaming of breakfast, or a walk or anything but the work in front of me.  I realized I needed to get myself into a more peaceful place. I wondered how to settle myself down.  I was searching for some peace inside and a place to start. Where am I in this mess?  How can I find some peace with my place in all this?

After a few deep breaths, I decided to stop looking back and looking forward and to be right here right now.  I reminded myself of my favorite Ram Dass quote lately: “Now is now.  Are you going to be here or not?”   Sitting here in my cozy Vermont basement office, having done all I could think of to do to get quiet and centered, (i.e., more breaths, some yoga, vanilla candle burning brightly, soothing fireplace shimmering beside me, Steve Halperin’s “Inner Peace” playing just softly enough in the background, and admittedly, more coffee), I finally began to feel more focused. Suddenly I realized how similar my experience of getting through this “2020 gifts writing” process has been to my overall process of getting through 2020 period.  In both cases, there have been the same many questions and few easily available answers.

  • What is going on? Should I change my original plan? How can I possibly do that?
  • What happened? How have 334 days possibly slipped by?
  • What was the meaning of all that?
  • Now what? What happens next?
  • Where am I? How can I find some peace with my place in all this?

We have almost made it through 2020 and 2020’s “Simple Gifts” are about to get wrapped up and tied with a bow.  I am guessing most of us have lots of unanswered questions.  My only certain answer for now is that we each need to find peace in our own way as we enter into 2021.  There have been lots of jokes and memes about 2020. I wish that I thought that when we turn the calendar page (or arrow over in our calendars) to January, that all would be well.  Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?) I’m thinking that life is more continuous and complicated than that and the page turn/arrow move likely isn’t going to fix everything. 

I don’t have all the answers to my five questions from this morning, but I am working on this idea of finding peace with my place in all this. I’m sure you have questions for yourself that you have been struggling with.  I always believe that asking ourselves and asking others really thoughtful questions can be more important than giving each other easy answers. I trust we will all continue to work our way through the questions that come our way.  We will find our own answers in the best way we know how and recruit the best resources we can to help us.   I hope that for each of you reading this, that you can finish out 2020 with some positive reflections on the past year, some hope for the future and some peace inside yourself, in the right here, right now.  For now, I offer three simple tools for finding peace inside from people whose wisdom I admire.  The first is a list of some of the music that I use in yoga class which always settles me into a more peaceful place.  The second is a set of three poems about peace that always touch my heart. And finally, the third is this month’s yoga pose, which is actually a breath practice, Nadi Shodhana.

A Light in Darkness
Photo: Rich Bokan

Suggestions for peaceful yoga music (to create a peaceful space wherever you are)

 I am pretty sure a quick search of your favorite music service will help you find these peace-bringing pieces I have placed in my yoga class play lists.  Fair warning: I love piano music so there is a fair amount of peaceful piano music in this list.

  • Beach Walking by Joefish
  • Sweet Dreams by Carolyn Southworth
  • Grateful by David Tolk
  • I by Benn Jordan
  • Go Gently by Suzanne Ciani
  • Sarvesham Mantra by Miten and Premal and Miten
  • Green Mountain Meadows by Denise Young
  • Church of Trees by Liz Story
  • Native America Flute Music 80 Minutes by Massage Tribe
  • The Ultimate Most Relaxing New Age Music in the Universe (various artists) by New Age (herein lies the Stephen Halerpin)
  • Palchelbel for the Piano by Laura Sullivan
  • Vandita Chants by Vandita Kat Marchesiello
  • Hallelujah (instrumental piano) by Leonard Cohen
  • 108 Sacred Names of Mother Divine: Sacred Chants of Devi, Craig Pruess and Ananda
Peaceful Forest Path

Three Poems About Peace

Thoughts about Peace
by S.C. Lourie@butterflies and pebbles

Go into this week with the attitude that
your peace, your health of mind, and your heart
mean more than getting everything else done.
That your smile matters. That feeling rested matters.
That holding the hand of your loved ones matters.
So pause lots.
Function at a pace that doesn’t pull you apart.
Honour the things that make you feel good inside,
the things that make you feel alive.
Give time to those things this week.
Make time the gift it is,
by giving it to what really matters to you.

Flying Seagulls
Photo: Ellen T.

(Note: The poem below written just after 9/11, still speaks beautifully to me today. I looked up the word “armistice,” to make sure I had its accurate meaning: “an agreement made by opposing sides in war to stop fighting for a certain time; a truce.”   It’s a word that works well for me these days both in terms of wars I am tempted to fight with people who disagree with me about politics as well as the wars I sometimes fight inside myself. If we can’t get all the way to peace, maybe “armistice” seems like a good start?)

Wage Peace
by Judith Hill

Wage peace with your breath.

Breathe in firemen and rubble, breathe out whole buildings and flocks of red wing blackbirds.
Breathe in terrorists and breathe out sleeping children and freshly mown lawns.

Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees. Breathe in the fallen and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.

Wage peace with your listening: hearing sirens, pray loud. Remember your tools: flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers.

Make soup. Play music. Memorize the words for thank you in three languages. Learn to knit and make a hat.

Think of chaos as dancing raspberries.
Imagine grief as the out breath of beauty or the gesture of fish.
Swim for the other side.

Wage peace.
Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious. Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived.
Celebrate today.

 

Peace
by Vv Welsh, age 8 1/2

Peace

 Peace
for you
Peace for me
Peace as tall as a mountain
Piling high with love and peace

This Month’s Yoga Pose: Nadi Shodhana (channel-purifying breath)

This month’s pose is actually a yoga breathing technique.  Nadi Shodhana is often used in yoga class, but it works well anytime anywhere when you need to calm your mind.  It is sometimes called channel-purifying breath or alternate nostril breathing.  The effects of nadi shodhana are: (1) calms the mind and releases tension; (2) generates introversion; (3) infuses the body with oxygen; (4) clears and releases toxins.

Precautions: (healthline.com) Practicing alternate nostril breath is safe for most people. Talk to your doctor before starting the practice if you have a medical condition such as asthma, COPD, or any other lung or heart concern. If you feel any adverse effects (i.e.,) shortness of breath, while doing the breathing technique, you should stop the practice immediately. This includes feeling lightheaded, dizzy, or nauseous. If you find the breathing is bringing up feelings of agitation or that it triggers any mental or physical symptoms, you should stop the practice.”   

How to do Nadi Shodhana Breath:   

  1. Sit comfortably on the floor or in a chair, your spine long and your abdomen relaxed.
  2. Find the position for your right hand and fingers. You can either simply open and close each nostril using the thumb and forefinger or you can come into a more traditional Vishnu mudra (hand position).  For Vishnu mudra (which I think is a lovely way to practice), open your hand and lightly draw the ring finger and middle finger in toward your palm.   Holding these two fingers toward the palm, you can use the thumb to close one nostril and then alternately use the ring finger to close the other nostril.  Bring this hand up to your nose and rest the other hand on your lap.
  3. Close your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale slowly through your left nostril. 
  4. At the end of this inhale, use your ring finger to close your left nostril as you gently let go of the thumb hold on the right nostril and exhale through the right nostril.
  5. Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale through the right nostril. Then closing your right nostril with your thumb and letting go of the left nostril, exhale through the left nostril. This completes one round.
  6. Continue this pattern for several rounds, gradually slowing the breath down and noticing your relaxation, ending with an exhale through the left nostril. Rest both hands in your lap and notice Nadi Shodhana’s calming effect.
Beautiful Sunset Colors
Photo: Ellen T.
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Twelve Essential Gifts of Yoga for 2020 – November

November's Gift - Gratitude

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“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have to acceptance; chaos into order; confusion into clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast. A house into a home; a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past; brings peace for today; and creates a vision for tomorrow.” Melodie Beattie

At the end of October as the November page of my calendar came closer to turning, I decided I could not write a blog about the planned November gift of gratitude. Try as I might, no part of me (mind, heart, energy, body, whatever) could seem to make that happen. No matter how many articles I read about the joys and benefits of gratitude practice, I simply couldn’t make it happen.  Even if I could pull off a little gratitude practice for myself, I certainly couldn’t think of anything that might help anyone else find gratitude.  Like so many of us at this point in 2020, I was doing my best to stay positive, do my yoga practice, keep up with my zoom classes and socializing, do my walking, and listen to the news while staying as sane as possible.  I was doing my positive best to do all the things those of us in retirement have been doing to sustain ourselves since April.  While doing these things, many of us have also been feeling grateful that we are retired as we watch family and friends struggle through the daily balance of work, parenting, and household maintenance while trying to stay physically safe and mentally functional.  I may not feel grateful for as much as I might, but I do feel grateful that I don’t have to do some things others are having to do these days. I had given myself until November 4, when we would be on the other side of the election as a later-than-usual deadline for this month’s blog.  And then November 4th began to last forever.  Today on November 8 as we begin to settle into this new round of the latest version of not so normal, I’m finally sitting down to write about gratitude.

A Stand of Trees

I have been using gratitude as a theme in my yoga classes for several years now, and in each gratitude class, I remind myself and my students of the benefits of gratitude.  An article in positive psychology.com provides information about research on gratitude and suggestions for making gratitude a more visible part of your life. 

According to this article, individuals who regularly practice gratitude experience such benefits as increased happiness and positive mood and more satisfaction with life. They demonstrate better physical health, including lower levels of cellular inflammation.  They report less fatigue and better sleep.  They also report their gratitude practice helped develop patience, humility, wisdom and a decreased emphasis on materialism. Every time I teach this class I resolve to work to develop my gratitude practice in yoga and in daily life.

Autumn Forest Floor

Finding Gratitude in Your Yoga Practice on the Mat or the Chair

Yoga is my go-to place for practicing gratitude. Whether you are in a yoga class or doing your own at home practice, there are many opportunities to find moments of gratitude. In an article in Yoga Journal, Erica Rodefer offers suggestions about where to find gratitude in yoga. If you want to check out her suggestions, the source for this article is: https://www.yogajournal.com/uncategorized/5-ways-express-gratitude-yoga

Reading this article, I realized that I could implement some of these ideas in my own practice. As I thought about this, I remembered a conversation with my favorite yoga teacher. I recall saying to her that I wanted to be able to teach a class exactly like her class. She wisely noted that “well, then it wouldn’t really be YOUR class, right?” So, while I loved the suggestions in Yoga Journal for finding gratitude, I decided I wanted to create my own list for finding gratitude in yoga. Maybe reading the article or my list will prompt you to find your own list of ways to find gratitude in your yoga practice.

Here is my version of finding gratitude in my own yoga practice.

  • The minute I really land on my mat or on the chair, I feel a whoosh of gratitude. This doesn’t happen when I first sit down, but it happens when I get myself truly present.   Breath helps me get there.  A favorite quote from Ram Dass helps as well: “Now is now.  Are you going to be here or not?”  Getting really grounded and settled and present brings gratitude right to my heart and I sink on in. Gratitude itself can be grounding, so if you have trouble getting grounded, try thinking of something or someone for which you are grateful.
  • Taking pauses and deep healing breaths in yoga always makes my gratitude level rise. Finding an even inhale and exhale and breathing into all three dimensions of my body brings me to a place of remembering to be grateful for a respiratory system that works as it is intended, bringing in exactly what I need and letting go of all that I don’t need in just the right way.
  • Moving into my favorite yoga poses, and holding them with stability and lightness, I find so much gratitude for this body that has served me so well in so many different ways. Appreciating the strength of the pose and the settling in brings gratitude into focus.  I focus on a favorite quote from my yoga teacher training.  “The only perfect pose is the pose that is perfect in your body in the present moment.”  Gratitude for an opportunity to just be, just as I am without judgment, is the loveliest of feelings.
  • The final relaxation of shavasana is a fairly certain place to find time for gratitude. Letting go and dropping onto the floor or chair with eyes closed, I always find myself deeply appreciating my body, my mind, and my breath as I take this time to let go. My heart feels grateful.
  • Finally, I always close my practice with the following: Shanti Shanti Shanti. Peace Peace Peace.  Peace to my heart, Peace to your heart, Peace to all hearts everywhere.  These words remind me to find my center and my heart and to deeply feel gratitude.
Holiday Sweets

Seven Activities for Practicing Gratitude Off the Mat or Chair

In addition to information about the benefits of gratitude, the article from positive psychology described above provides some very concrete suggestions adapted from Sansone and Sansone (2010) and Emmons (2010) for practicing gratitude in your life outside of yoga. https://positivepsychology.com/benefits-of-gratitude 

1.  Journal about things, people, or situations for which you are grateful.

2.  Write a gratitude letter to someone for whom you are thankful. Consider sending it or giving it to them in person.

3.  Practice saying “thank you” in a real and meaningful way. Be specific.

4.  Write thank you notes. Some might say this is a lost art. Challenge yourself to write one hand-written note every week for one month.

5.  Create visual reminders to practice gratitude. Sticky notes, notifications, and people are great for this.

Two additional gratitude activities are described below:

6.  Make a gratitude list. Consider doing the gratitude exercise from The Living Clearly Method: 5 Principles for a Fit Body, Healthy Mind and Joyful Life by Hilaria Baldwin (p.142).  According to Baldwin, “It’s said it takes 40 days for something to be a habit.  Gratitude is a habit that is good for you and for your life.”  Baldwin suggests making a list of ten things you are thankful for every day for forty days. These can be small things or big things. (Note: It seems to me that this process works not only on the day you write the list but could result in a good list to reflect on whenever you need a dose of gratitude for yourself.)

7.  Tell people you love what you love about them. This idea comes from the book Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying by Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush (page 87). Consider following the suggestion made by Mirabai Bush in this quote: “I think I’m going to start telling people more often what it is I love about them so they can hear it while they are living. I’m changing my to-do list from the tasks I faithfully work through every week to “tell friends what I love about them; die without regrets.”

Doing activities like those described above can increase your awareness of gratitude and help you receive its many benefits.

This Month's Yoga Pose: Sun Breath

Sun Breath 1
Sun Breath 2
Sun Breath 3

Sun breath, often done as part of a sun salutation, is available anytime in or out of yoga class.  A sun breath can help you get quiet and centered and find gratitude.  To do a sun breath, sit or stand in mountain pose.  Resting your hands by your sides, take several complete breaths in and out. Try to make the length of each inhale match the length of each exhale.  Then bring your hands together at your heart, palms touching.  Separating your hands, lift your arms out and up, tracing a beautiful sun right in front of yourself.   When your arms reach the top, bring your palms together again.  Take a deep exhale and as you do, draw your hands together down your midline until your thumbs rest at the center of your chest, bowing your head toward your heart.  You can repeat this sun breath several times focusing on filling and emptying your lungs completely.  Then relax your body and take several normal breaths as you sit quietly filling your heart with gratitude.

A Short Poem about Gratitude for this Challenging November 2020.

Being Thankful

Some are thankful for turkey.
Some are thankful for the earth.
We should all be grateful for each other. 
— Vv Welsh, age 8

Stuffed Turkey
Stuffed Turkey on the Dining Room Table photo credit: Vv Welsh, age 8
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Twelve Essential Gifts of Gentle Yoga for 2020 – October

October's Gift - Flexibility

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"In the end, everything will be okay. If it's not okay, it's not yet the end." - Fernando Sabino, translated from Portuguese

This quote, which has also been attributed to John Lennon, offers optimism in our present-day situation. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said to myself or a friend that some days it feels like the end of the world is just around the corner.  News about deaths from virus, shootings, wildfires and hurricanes is exhausting and scary.  All this with the backdrop of stories about racism and injustice and conflict and divisiveness daily make me feel like it’s the end of the world. If we decide to believe that everything will be okay in the end, then we really are not at the end of the world because things are definitely not okay; however, we may well be at the end of the world as we have known it.   Despite the losses we are feeling, I believe there are gains to be made as we move from the world we knew, through the world we are in right now, and into the world that is waiting for us.  This month’s gift, flexibility, seems like a good thing to try to develop further in ourselves as we cope as best we can and move forward with all the grace and hope we can find.

 

We can think of flexibility both in relation to our bodies and in relation to our thoughts and feelings.  Maybe you are already very physically and/or mentally flexible, or maybe you know someone whose physical and mental flexibility you admire.  It’s interesting to consider what might enhance physical and mental flexibility and to wonder if there are common factors in those two different ways of being flexible.  Enhanced flexibility could be a real asset in helping transition with more ease to a different kind of world, which may actually turn out to be better than we are expecting.

Sun, Clouds, Water

“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again.  When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may be just the beginning of a great adventure.” ― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

Finding More Physical Flexibility

A regular practice of yoga can help increase and maintain physical flexibility.  According to an article in Yoga Journal from September 26, 2018, Dr. Thomas Green described flexibility in this way: “In Western, physiological terms, “flexibility” is just the ability to move muscles and joints through their complete range. It’s an ability we’re born with, but that most of us lose. “Our lives are restricted and sedentary,” explains Green, “so our bodies get lazy, muscles atrophy, and our joints settle into a limited range.”  This article also notes even if we are active, our body simply gets stiffer as we age because ageing causes us to lose moisture in our tissues.   According to Green, “Stretching slows this process of dehydration by stimulating the production of tissue lubricants,” or as one of my favorite yoga teachers often said, “Motion is lotion.” A regular yoga practice can help us get stronger and more flexible.  A gentle yoga practice can bring us opportunities to reflect and find more awareness of how increased flexibility feels in the body.

Autumn Leaf

Cultivating More Mental Flexibility

While yoga helps us increase physical flexibility, a regular yoga practice can also improve our mental flexibility. Yoga asks us to join together mind, body and spirit and this connection can create space for expanding our thinking and perhaps open new ways of looking at ourselves, the world and our place in it. An important part of yoga for me has always been finding ways to take the benefits of practice off the yoga mat or chair and into my daily life both physically and psychologically.  I recently discovered a new way of thinking about this in an article about “mental yoga” to deal with anxiety. (Peterson, Tanya, “Practice Mental Yoga for Anxiety: Psychological Flexibility,” healthyplace.com, 12/12/19).  The author, suggested several physical yoga techniques that can be used as “mental yoga” techniques to deal with anxiety.  While the specific techniques Peterson describes from physical yoga seem incredibly useful for anxiety reduction, they also seem useful for increasing mental flexibility.  These are techniques I regularly use in physical yoga to help students take their yoga out of class into everyday life. One can use these techniques in physical yoga practice and then consciously apply them as “mental yoga” off the mat and the chair.  Building on Peterson’s techniques for “mental yoga” for anxiety, I’ve described below some examples of ways in which physical yoga techniques might help one enhance mental flexibility in dealing with situations in daily life.

Finding Flexibility in Physical Yoga and Mental Yoga

  • Breathe.
    • On and off the matIn both physical and mental
      yoga, it is all about the breath.  Let
      the breath bring in new energy you need and let go of what you don’t need.  Stopping for breath can give you time and space to think more calmly and to experience the pose and/or the situation more
      deeply and more broadly.   This new energy can provide strength and open up new physical and mental pathways to consider. 
  • Practice present moment awareness.
    • On the mat: In yoga practice, teachers often suggest you close your eyes and “notice, just notice.” This helps you get more centered in the present.
    • Off the mat in mental yoga: Closing your eyes and just noticing in difficult situations can allow you to notice things you might not otherwise notice and can open your mind to new options.
  • Expand your perspective. 
    • On the mat: try imagining you are looking at your pose from behind yourself or from the ceiling or from inside out. Notice how that looks and feels different.
    • Off the mat in mental yoga: In a difficult interpersonal situation, try to expand the frame of the mental picture of you and the other person. Imagine you could see what else might be going on with that person that you are not aware of. Try to expand your understanding of the situation and the options you both have.
  • Count. 
    • On the mat:  To center yourself in your breath at the beginning of class, it can help to match the length of your inhale with the length of your exhale by counting. Or working on a balance pose, bring a count to help you say steady and focused.
    • Off the mat: In a difficult situation, take a moment.  Count to 10. Say a mantra.  Count the tiles on the floor or the flowers on the wall. These moments might allow your mind to drift toward new ways of understanding the situation and allow new options to emerge.
  • Explore openness.
    • On the mat: Instead of doing a physical yoga pose exactly as you’ve always done it, try out new possibilities. Change the position of your legs in seated pose. Interlace your fingers in your non-usual ways.
    • Off the mat in mental yoga: In a difficult situation, think of what might happen if you did something the exact opposite way of what you might usually do. Imagine how that might go and expand your options.
  • Balance your effort and your ease:
    • On the mat: Move into tree pose.  Notice where you are expending effort in your legs and find ease in your arms and upper body as they move upward.  Notice if you can find less effort or more ease anywhere in your body.
    • Off the mat in mental yoga: Notice where your focus is as you work on a problem you need to solve. See if you can move yourself back and forth between focused attention on details and more unfocused attention to the big picture.  See what happens with options you identify as you make this move back and forth.
  • Observe without judgment:
    • On the mat: Pay attention to what is going in your body. Notice where your body is in space and notice how it is feeling.  Find your edge and move toward it and away from it, without judging.  Notice how different sides of your body feel different from each other.  Or notice how a pose feels different today than yesterday.
    • Off the mat in mental yoga: Notice how you are making a decision. Without judging your own process, wonder if you might make a slight change in your process and consider what difference that might make.
  • Let Go
    • On the mat: In physical yoga, letting go can happen at the start of class, during a pose or in final relaxation. This instruction to “let go” means to release holding and tension in the physical body. Attention to breath is often used to help with letting go.
    • Off the mat in mental yoga: Letting go and trusting the process can mentally let us stop trying to control everything and trust things will all turn out okay at the end. This poem by Thomas Smith describes this possibility. If we really believe everything is going to be okay in the end, sometimes it is important to trust the process and go with the flow as calmly and confidently as possible. The poem below illustrates this idea of thinking flexibly enough that you can trust the process.

   Trust by Thomas R. Smith

 It’s like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes
So you take your car to the new mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.

The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers—
all show up at their intended destinations.

The theft that could have happened doesn’t.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.
And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered,
even though you can’t read the address.

This Month’s Pose: Eagle (Garudasana)

This month’s pose, Eagle Pose (Garudasana), offers us an opportunity to strengthen and stretch our bodies.  It also improves concentration and balance and encourages us to explore our flexibility.  If you have uncontrolled high blood pressure or low blood pressure and certain heart conditions you should proceed with much caution with standing eagle. If you have recent or chronic knee, hip or leg injury or pain, you may want to consider exploring a seated eagle pose. Before proceeding to practice eagle, you should do sufficient warm ups of your arms, legs and shoulders.  As with all yoga poses, you should use care and know what your body can and cannot do without accommodations.  

Here is the guidance for seated eagle pose:

Eagle on the right leg. Find yourself in seated mountain, feet hip distance apart and flat on the floor, muscles of the legs and abs engaged, shoulders down, palms resting on your lap, chin parallel to the floor, eyes looking ahead, crown of head rising to the sky.  Extend your arms out to the sides, parallel to the floor, palms facing down.  Pick up your right foot and move it more to the center of your body, aligning it with your navel and resting it on the floor.  Decide on the position for your lower body.  Either: (1) pick up your left foot and rest the sole of the left foot gently on the side of the right foot; or (2) cross your left ankle over your right ankle; or (3) cross your left knee over your right knee.   Sit up tall with a deep inhale, and leaving your arms out, bring your arms toward each other in front of your body, crossing them at the elbow with your right arm on top.  Once your arms are directly in front of you, reach both arms in opposite directions as far as you can. Bend your elbows and touch opposite shoulders, as though you were giving yourself a gentle hug. At this point, notice what works best for your arms and shoulders and choose one of the following positions: (1)   with your elbows at center of your body, continue with the gentle hug or (2) place the backs of your hands together, or (3) wrap your arms so that your palms come together.  Finding your perfect arm position and taking care of your shoulders, hinge forward slightly at the waist, gently squeeze your arms and knees together, drawing your energy into the midline.   Hold here for 3-4 deep breaths, noticing your foot pressing into the floor for foundation and your torso rising up lightly.  When you are ready to come out of the pose, unwind your arms and return the foot of your crossed leg to rest on the floor beside your other foot. Return yourself to seated mountain and prepare to do eagle on the other side.

 

Eagle on the left leg. Check your alignment in seated mountain, sitting away from the back of the chair, feet hip distance apart and flat on the floor, muscles of the legs and abs engaged, shoulders down, palms resting on your lap, chin parallel to the floor, eyes looking ahead, crown of head rising to the sky.  Extend your arms out to the sides, parallel to the floor, palms facing down.  Pick up your left foot and move it more to the center of your body, aligning it with your navel and resting it on the floor.  Decide on the position for your lower body.  Either: (1) pick up your right foot and rest the sole of the right foot gently on the side of the left foot; or (2) cross your right ankle over your left ankle; or (3) cross your right knee over your left knee. Sit up tall with a deep inhale, and leaving your arms out to the side, parallel to the earth, bring your arms toward each other in front of your body, crossing them at the elbow with your left arm on top.  Once your arms are directly in front of you, reach both arms in opposite directions as far as you can. Bend your elbows and touch opposite shoulders, as though you were giving yourself a gentle hug. At this point, notice what works best for your arms and shoulders and choose one of the following positions: (1)   with your elbows at center of your body, continue with the gentle hug; or (2) place the backs of your hands together, or (3) wrap your arms so that your palms come together. Finding your perfect arm position and taking care of your shoulders, hinge forward slightly at the waist and gently squeeze your arms and legs together, drawing your energy into the midline.   Hold here for 3-4 deep breaths, noticing your foot pressing into the floor for foundation and your torso rising up lightly though the crown of your head.   When you are ready to come out of the pose, unwind your arms and return the foot of your crossed leg to rest on the floor beside your other foot, returning yourself to seated mountain.

Autumn Mums
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Twelve Essential Gifts of Gentle Yoga for 2020 – September

Sunflowers

September's Gift - Asteya (non-stealing)

September’s gift of gentle yoga is Asteya, the third of yoga’s Yamas or guidelines for living in the world.   Many traditions emphasize the importance of non-stealing.  I remember my childhood Sunday school lessons telling me “Thou Shall Not Steal.”  In my home as a child, non-stealing and non-lying were absolutes.  We McGinnises were honest to the nth degree.  I can hardly imagine how much trouble we kids would have gotten into for telling a single lie or stealing a tiny bit of anything from anyone. Before yoga, non-stealing always seemed a very straightforward commandment and it wasn’t one I ever worried about breaking as I knew for so certain that stealing was wrong.

 

In yoga, I have gained a deeper understanding of the many ways it is possible to steal from ourselves and others.   This week, the reading I have been doing from two very different sources came together to help me think differently about the idea of stealing.  My take away from both those sources is the realization that a way I steal from myself most stealthily and most frequently is in the way I handle time in my life.  I make things too difficult and commit to more than I need to commit to. That said, just as I made a resolution at the beginning of 2020 to write a blog post each month, nine months later I am making a commitment to writing a shorter monthly blog post from now on.  I’m making that non-time-stealing commitment for myself and for you folks who have been slogging your way through reading my often overly long posts. (Are you still reading?  Shorter is good news, right?) 

Instead of just commanding us not to steal, the concept of Asteya asks us to look at what is underneath our possible stealing.  We can steal in many surprising ways from ourselves and from each other. In this blog I want to look at just one way we might steal from ourselves. Simply put, one way we often steal from ourselves is by not thinking we have done enough.  This happens for many reasons, but most often I think it happens because we don’t think we ARE enough:  smart enough, competent enough, lovable enough, attractive enough, good enough, deserving enough, enough period.  Two very disparate readings I’ve been doing lately are the book by Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush, Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying and my online food and exercise management app. Strangely enough in the last few days both of these resources have reminded me of four important concepts that I plan to use to practice Asteya.  These are not new ideas to me, but the idea that using them might keep me from stealing time and energy and happiness from myself feels like a gift. The two writings use different language for sure, but both pointed me lately toward these concepts and I’ve decided this isn’t just coincidence.  I’m going to pay attention. I started to say these concepts will help me practice Asteya in a better way.  Instead, let me say, they will simply help me practice Asteya.  My Asteya practice will simply be good enough as it is.

Practice Asteya: Stop Stealing from Yourself

Clouded Sky over Field

Rather than trying to cover every possible detail of the idea of Asteya, I am sharing these four simple concepts I hope you can take onto your yoga mat or chair and out into your daily life to develop a practice of Asteya, of not stealing from yourself.  Take from this what you will and let go what you do not need.  Use just what is just enough for you.

  1. Be in the present moment:
    It’s clear to me that not being in the present moment is like stealing away our moments from ourselves and missing important parts of our lives. In yoga classes, I often use quotes about present moment awareness. This one from Thich Nhat Hanh is one I love:

    “To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.” Thich Nhat Hanh

    My recent reading of Ram Dass has left me with a couple of even easier-to-remember quotes as reminders of present moment awareness:

     “Now is now.  Are you going to be here or not?”

     “When you are already in Detroit, you don’t have to take a bus to get there.”

  2. Appreciate exactly who you are:
    Being in the present moment and being yourself in that moment can help you practice “Asteya.” Gratitude changes everything.  
    From Lao Tzu:
    “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
  3. Bring to each moment the spirit of abundance:
    When we are always worried about shortage and not recognizing the abundance in our own lives, we are more likely to steal from others so that we can get our share. When we operate from the idea that there is enough for everyone if we take only our share, everything changes. In our world right now, this seems a very difficult practice, but to try to change this scarcity model in our own small way seems really urgent.
    “There is a lie that acts like a virus within the mind of humanity. And that lie is, ‘There’s not enough good to go around. There’s lack and there’s limitation and there’s just not enough.’ The truth is that there’s more than enough good to go around. There are more than enough creative ideas. There is more than enough power. There is more than enough love. There’s more than enough joy. All of this begins to come through a mind that is aware of its own infinite nature. There is enough for everyone. If you believe it, if you can see it, if you act from it, it will show up for you. That’s the truth.”
    ― Michael Beckwith
  4. Practice loving kindness toward yourself and others:

    Often our thought of not being enough is based in fear.  Fear is the opposite of love and fear is truly viral among us these days.  If we were able to replace fear with love, it seems like stealing would be so much less likely.   Consider using this self-compassion break developed by Kristen Neff.

SELF COMPASSION BREAK (5 MINUTES)

This practice can be used any time of day or night and will help you remember to evoke the three aspects of self-compassion when you need it

Think of a situation in your life that is difficult, that is causing you stress. Call the
situation to mind, and see if you can actually feel the stress and emotional discomfort in your body. Now say to yourself:

1. This is a moment of suffering. That’s mindfulness. Other options include saying:
This hurts. Ouch. This is stress.

2. Suffering is a part of life. That’s common humanity. Other options include saying:
Other people feel this way. I am not alone. We all struggle in our lives.
Now, put your hands over your heart, feel the warmth of your hands and the gentle touch of your hands on your chest. Or adopt the soothing touch best for you.

3. Now say to yourself: May I be kind to myself. You can also ask yourself, “What do I need to hear right now to express kindness to myself?” Is there a phrase that speaks to you in your particular situation, such as:
• May I give myself the compassion that I need
• May I learn to accept myself as I am
• May I forgive myself
• May I be strong
• May I be patient

This month's pose: Chair Pose (Utkatasana) Lets Us Settle into the Present Moment

Chair Pose - front
Chair Pose side

This month’s pose, utkatasana, invites us to settle into the present moment and appreciate where we are.  IF YOU HAVE CHRONIC KNEE OR LOWER BACK issues you may not want to try this pose. Standing in mountain pose, inhale and raise your arms in front of you, parallel to the floor, palms facing down. Bend your knees to lower your hips, allowing your back to arch gently, keeping your waist long.  If you feel any compression in your lower back, curl your tailbone down until the discomfort is relieved. Think of sitting your weight back into your heels. Visualizing yourself sitting back onto a chair. See if you might lower your hips a little more, holding your knees and chest back to keep the arch in your spine.  Your arms can remain parallel to the ground with palms down or you can raise them slightly upward, moving palms to face each other. Hold for a few breaths.  From here you can appreciate your abundant blessings and send loving kindness to yourself and others. To come out of the pose, press down through your feet and rise to stand. 

One last tip and a poem for practicing Asteya:

 

Just as I had finished working on this blog today, I had the opportunity to play with my grand-daughter on Zoom.  As we were finishing our playtime, I told her the subject of my blog was Asteya, non-stealing, and asked her if she had any suggestions about what I might include.  She is a very wise little old soul and responded with her usual certainty and thoughtfulness and instantly created a poem for me to use.  Then she added, “Oh, no wait.  Forgot something. Make this the 4th line:  Be yourself.”   I thought it was a good edit and so the poem appears below.  She had heard nothing about the content I had written but her content was so similar to mine and to that of Ram Dass and my food and weight management app. I decided the universe must be trying to tell me something.  

Non-Stealing

Be calm.
Be peaceful.

Be good.

Be yourself.

That will lead you to not stealing.

–Vv Welsh, age 8

Sunset Sky

P.S.  Ok, this blog is a LITTLE shorter than earlier ones.

Shorter enough. Change is a process.  Thanks for reading!

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Twelve Essential Gifts of Gentle Yoga for 2020 – August

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Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

-from the poem “Sometimes” by Mary Oliver

August's Gift: Astonishment

Last December when I developed monthly topics for the twelve essential gifts of gentle yoga, I decided that August would be a fine month to write about the idea of “astonishment.” August’s sunny beachy days, fields of bright sunflowers, and magical sunsets seemed to match the very definition of astonishment: “feeling of great surprise and wonder; the rapt attention and deep emotion caused by the sight of something extraordinary.” I sat down this morning to reflect on images of astonishment.

I have used the theme of “astonishment” many times in yoga classes since I discovered the short stanza above from a Mary Oliver poem. I loved these lines from the moment I read them as they always remind me of my grand-daughter, whose quick and careful observation of the world around her often leads to moments of astonishment and delight. Then her penchant for immediately and enthusiastically telling about her astonishment in great detail always equally astonishes me. She often provides me with wonder-filled tales which I promptly tell about to any of my patient friends who are willing to listen to just one more. Deciding she might be an excellent consultant on astonishment, today in our facetime chat I asked for her help on thinking about astonishment. Her thoughtful 8-year old response was an attempt to pay close attention: “Are you talking about good astonishment or bad astonishment?” I suddenly realized that my often-used examples of “good astonishing” moments that take your breath away and cause your heart to sing can be matched in intensity by “bad astonishing” moments that take your breath away and cause your heart to break.

For several months now we have found ourselves faced daily with examples of things that in the past might have certainly been “bad astonishment.” We have watched graphs of virus cases and deaths, seen masked faces everywhere, and listened to news reports from our own country and around the world that would have blown our minds this time last August. We seem however, to be less astonished and more numbed to what keeps getting described as our “new normal.” Sometimes I wonder what might ever seem surprising again as we seem to get more and more dulled to the way things are. Our usual individual maps of how life is supposed to go, now seem so incorrect as to feel useless and many of us often feel more dread and fear than wonder and amazement. I’ve heard myself think more than once, “nothing surprises me anymore.”

Astonishing Views

The Principle of Least Astonishment

As I began working on this post, I quickly came across an idea that seemed to be exactly what I needed to read about, “the principle of least astonishment,” also referred to as the principle of least surprise. Hoping to get a different take on the idea of astonishment, sadly, I quickly realized this is a term that comes from software design. Since I was feeling quite techno-overwhelmed already by a crazy-making computer virus program installation and zooming myself on a daily basis for all kinds of reasons, I didn’t think I could bear to read about anything related to software design. On a wary tiptoe, I took a quick look at this information. I decided that at least I could peek at Wikipedia where I learned that this nearly 40-year-old software design principle states that “a component of a system should behave in a way that most users will expect it to behave; the behavior should not astonish or surprise users.” Wikipedia noted that a typical formulation of the principle is: “If a necessary feature has a high astonishment factor, it may be necessary to redesign the feature.” For the first time ever, I realized there are software engineers purposely explicitly designing tools in ways that were not supposed to astonish or surprise me, so that my life would be easier and I would be more able to quickly adapt to their software. Certainly, this very brief foray into the world of software design heightened my respect for the people behind the tools on my screen. While I welcome this approach in my computer use, however, I am sad to think about my whole life this way in terms of astonishment of both the good and bad variety.

That said, I began to think about the fact that many of us have become more and more accustomed to having things work as we expect them to work. This is certainly not true for many people in our world, but so many of the privileged among us have been able to count on things working out sooner rather than later. Our phones should give us the next minute’s weather forecast. Our playlists should play what we want to hear right now. Our cars should keep driving at the speed we just chose. When that doesn’t happen as expected we may not be astonished but we were at least surprised (and probably quite annoyed). We have come to believe there are certain things we can expect and control and that we aren’t likely to be surprised by how things work. Until now. And now we know the design has run amuck. At first, we were all quite “bad astonished.” Lately many of us are less astonished and more dulled, angry, and depressed. Many of us no longer have the capacity to pay attention, be astonished and tell about it.

 

Astonishing Waterfall

Challenging our mental models

Most simply described, a mental model is a way of making sense of the world. Each of us has developed our own mental model that we use unconsciously every day to help us understand things, reason, develop priorities and make decisions about what is important. Surprise (astonishment) shakes our mental models and can cause us to re-evaluate our model and change it or perhaps to cling to our model ever more zealously. For months now, COVID-19 has continued to provide us with an event that challenges our individual and collective mental models of how the world works. Philippe Silberzahn’s April 15, 2020 blog is an interesting read about how the coronavirus challenges our mental models. His article refers to the organizational theory of Karl Weick who describes a “cosmological episode” as “a particularly severe shock that can call into question our very identity: the gap is too great to be denied and the event is so unexpected and powerful that it cannot be interpreted by our existing mental models, leading to their collapse and that of our identity at the same time.” Silberzahn describes COVID-19 as an example of a cosmological episode. He states that “the key to a cosmological episode, apart from managing the event itself, is to win the battle of narration, of mental models, to get people to accept the meaning of the event. Whatever the consequences of the coronavirus, it is obvious that this “battle” has already begun, that its consequences will be very heavy, and that they will be very different depending on who wins it.”

It would take more words than this blog can manage for me to write about each of our own mental models and our collective mental models and how these play into the narration of the meaning of the pandemic we are living through. My take away from this thinking about mental models (obviously through the lens of my own model) is that astonishment/surprise (the gap between our mental models and reality) is important to hold onto. We need to not lose the element of astonishment. We need to not collapse into ourselves in sadness and worry or separate ourselves from each other because our individual mental models are causing us to make different decisions from each other. Together we need to share our narratives and create a shared narrative that can get us through this as safely as possible and take us to the other side as whole as possible.

We need to pay attention.
We need to be astonished.
And we need to tell about it.

 

This month’s pose: Mountain Pose (Tadasana)

Tadasana - Mountain Pose

Even though I have lived in Vermont for over twenty-five years, as I drive around the state I often turn a corner to see an incredible mountain and am astonished enough to gasp out loud. A mountain’s strong solid grounding with its crown rising gently to the sky still gives me that feeling of surprise that takes my breath away and makes my heart sing. It creates in me good astonishment. Getting into yoga mountain pose can give us the same feeling. If you decide to move into mountain pose, try saying aloud to yourself in your mountain, “I am the mountain. I am grounded. I am safe. I am astonishing.” Seeing and feeling yourself this way can be good astonishing.

Here are some cues for getting into your mountain:
Stand with your feet hip distance apart.  Ground into the 3 corners of your feet (point under the base of your big toe, point under the base of your little toe, middle of your heel). Imagine you have deep roots going down into the ground. Let the muscles of your legs hug the bones of your legs. Let your knees be unlocked. Engage your abdominal muscles (belly button toward spine). Engage up through your torso. Shoulders are loose with arms hanging at sides. Turn palms forward. Eyes look straight ahead.  Crown of head reaches with lightness up to sky. Lift up the corners of your mouth and smile.  Take 3-5 deep breaths in and out.

Pay attention. Be astonished. Stay astonished. Tell about it.

Namaste

Misty Mountain
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Twelve Essential Gifts of Gentle Yoga for 2020 – July

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“Yoga is a dance between control and surrender…between pushing and letting go…and when to push and when to let go becomes part of the creative process, part of the open-ended exploration of your being.” Joel Kramer

July's Gift: Balance

One of the great benefits of yoga is the opportunity to find and practice a balance between effort and ease.  We can take what we learn in yoga about balancing effort and ease from our yoga mat or chair and find ways to practice this ever-changing individual dance in our often shaky and unbalancing lives outside of class. This spring as studios have closed because of

Covid-19, more and more of us are teaching and practicing yoga at home alone while watching our teachers and other students on an electronic screen.   Virtual yoga offers an opportunity to practice while adding opportunities to find our balance in new ways. Back in March, all this new screen-time yoga seemed a bit intimidating and difficult.  As a student and as a teacher I feared that the quality of my experience would be dependent on the quality of the technology involved. Nowadays I am logging into class with less trepidation about the technology and realizing that, as was true in on-the-ground classes, my experience is probably more dependent on what I bring to the mat or the chair than it is on the quality of my microphone or speaker. 

My first experience with practicing virtual yoga was with my long-time favorite yoga teacher.  Given that I was in Florida and she was in Vermont, the opportunity to practice with her in real time was a treat.  I loved hearing her voice with her excellent guidance and seeing her so clearly demonstrate poses in my living room.  Listening and watching on my computer, I decided this new-to-me technology was one of the rare gifts in a crazy-making world where I was feeling thrown off-balance with every newscast.  By the end of the 75-minute class I felt more balanced and centered than I had for a while   Since that first evening, I’ve tuned into this Virtual Gentle Evening Kripalu class nearly every Thursday at 4:45. (Check it out at http://www.embodiedvermont.com). 

My first experience with teaching virtual yoga was a practice session I did with a small group of supportive friends who volunteered to be my test students. Nervously beginning the class, I fussed with getting people online, tinkered with sound, and fretted about whether or not people could see my head and my feet at the same time.  So, concerned about “getting it right” on the computer, I felt a bit rattled in the yoga teacher seat.  As my friends helped me check out at the end of class, I said “I don’t think I’m going to like this much.  I feel disconnected and like this is more like a performance than a teaching experience.”  As the last couple of weeks of teaching a virtual chair yoga class have unfolded, I’ve found the technology easier. As I had noticed as a student myself, I’ve heard from my students that there are some actual advantages to virtual yoga.  One student observed that doing a virtual yoga class is like have a private yoga session. While we may miss that shared feeling we get from an in-person class, we can get to class no matter how far away it is and no matter what the weather is.  We can end our own virtual class sooner or later than the actual class end time. We can mute ourselves and play our own music. We can turn off our video feed and not be seen by anyone else. We are less likely to be comparing our yoga to another student’s yoga.  With practice, we can become better able to balance our effort and our ease as we become able to let go of too much effort with the technology and become more able to focus on relaxing into our our own yoga experiences.

BALANCE OF EFFORT AND EASE: The Concept

Balanced Cranes on the Beach

The balance of effort and ease was first described in three words in verse 2.46 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras over 1500 years ago.  The words “sthira sukham asanam” mean that the “seat” in yoga should be steady and comfortable.  “Sthira” means steady, stable, and aligned with the structure of one’s bones. “Sukham” means comfortable, ease-filled, and light.  “Asanam” refers to the seat or posture. Yoga postures were not originally intended to be heavy physical workouts to do at the gym, but instead to be a way of best preparing oneself for meditation. This idea of a steady, stable base combined with ease-filled lightness provided a seat for introspection and meditation.  One of my favorite ways to describe the balance of effort and ease in a yoga posture is to consider what it takes to hold a wet bar of soap in the shower. If you don’t hold the wet bar of soap with enough effort it falls to the floor. If you hold it too tightly it flies out of your hand.  We all learn with practice just exactly how to hold the bar so that it does what we need it to do.  In yoga, if we find just the right amount of effort, engagement and grounding we can begin to explore the lightness and move happily toward the sky.  I heard another teacher recently refer to the “Goldilocks” place…the place that is “just right.”  Finding this place over and over is a challenge and an opportunity.  Once we find it, we know just where it is. Awareness of breath can help us ground and then help us remain in the “just right” place of grounding to move to the balance point between grounding and lightness.

TAKING THE BALANCE OF EFFORT AND EASE OFF THE MAT OR CHAIR

Balance Sunshine on the Plains

Maybe especially in 2020, every day seems to require finding some kind of balance.  How deeply engaged can we be every day in helping to increase justice for all while we take good care of our children, our aging parents and ourselves?   How vigorously do we need to clean the groceries we bring into our house while managing to maintain some kind of optimism that can help us care for ourselves and others without going completely off the rails? What can we control and what can we not control and how hard should we be constantly trying? Should we just stop watching the news and give up and let whatever happens happen?  All this worry and wondering knocks us off balance continuously.

Grounding and steadiness seem to me the best way to begin to find some kind of balance on a minute by minute basis, both in yoga and in daily life.   I love the fact that the word “asanam” means seat or posture but that it also means “dwelling.”  If we think of our bodies and their very structure of bone and muscle as our dwelling, then we can think about making that dwelling strong and stable with healthy food, exercise, and rest.  We can think then of stopping in our tracks and finding that “sthira” stability in any given moment. Once stable and finding our breath, we can connect body with mind and think of moving to an exploratory attitude of practicing “sukham,” reaching skyward with lightness.  In this way we can follow the guidance of this ancient advice to move toward making our “seat both steady and comfortable” on and off the yoga mat. This balanced spot between effort and ease may only last a moment at a time, but sending balanced energy out from our dwelling into the world could make a difference for ourselves and others around us.

This month’s yoga pose: Vriksasana (tree pose)

Tree Pose - Balance

This month’s yoga pose is Vriksasana or Tree Pose, demonstrated in the photo above by lovely Lindsay Smith.  Tree Pose is the perfect opportunity to practice the balance of effort and ease. If you have issues with your hips or knees and want to try tree seated in a chair, that can work as well.  You can also use a chair or a wall to help with your balance. Once you complete tree on one side you will move to repeat the pose on the other leg.

Before moving into tree, practice for a bit standing with all your weight on one leg.  You can do this somewhat tentatively by just stepping off onto one foot and moving around a bit to see what it feels like.  Decide if you want to be near a wall or a chair to help with your balance.  When you feel ready to move into the pose, find a place in front of you that will not move and use that as your visual focal point or “drishti.”

  1. Choose which leg you will use first as the base of your tree. Find “sthira” as you feel the deep roots under the foot of your grounding leg and unlock the knee of that leg.  Notice what it feels like to move into this one-legged stance. Let the muscles of your legs hug the bones as you use your mindful effort to get yourself really stable.  Engage with effort as you engage your breath and abdomen and lengthen through your torso, finding the perfect balance in your body in this moment. Let your shoulders soften down, your arms hanging loosely at your sides. Imagine you could isometrically move your pubic bone toward your sternum to lengthen through your lower back.

 

  1. Slowly turn the other knee out toward the side (as shown in the picture above) and bring the sole of the lifted foot to rest somewhere NOT on your knee. The foot can rest on the ankle of your standing leg or against the inside of the lower leg or if it works in your body against the inside of the thigh. Wherever this is, notice that your leg gently presses into the sole of the foot as the sole of the foot gently presses into the standing leg.

 

  1. As you use your grounding and your breath and your visual connection with the drishti (focal point) out in front to assist with finding a strong stable base, notice your grounding effort and begin to explore the idea of “sukham,” ease and lightness. Lengthen your neck and keeping your chin parallel to the ground, lift the crown of your head toward the sky.  Find the position that works for your arms. They can be at your heart with palms lightly together or you can lightly raise one or both arms to find the perfect position for the limbs of your tree.

 

  1. Notice what you notice about what it feels like to be grounded with just the right amount of effort strongly into the earth while reaching with just the right amount of ease toward the sky. Notice what this feeling of just the right balance of effort and ease feels like in your body in this moment. Pay attention to that feeling.  Breathe and know that you can find this feeling of balance inside yourself wherever and whenever you need it.

If you start to wobble and begin to come out of the pose unexpectedly, without judgment remind yourself that yoga, like life, “is a dance between control and surrender and between pushing and letting go.” In both dances, you always have the choice to move yourself gently back into where you need to be. Observing how you respond to teetering a bit in a pose can give you information about how being off balance feels to you as well as information about how you typically respond to this loss of balance. Noticing your typical response to getting off center and exploring different possible responses can provide valuable information to use when you feel knocked off-center in the world.

5. Use the other leg to do tree on the other side of the body. Start by playing with balancing a bit on this leg and then move into tree on this side.

 Namaste, yogis.  Peace to my heart.  Peace to your heart. Peace to all hearts everywhere.

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