Twelve Essential Gifts of Gentle Yoga for 2020 – March

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"March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb." Thomas Fuller, 1732

March's Gift: Patience

I remember well an elementary school bulletin board in my Indiana classroom featuring the quote, “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” I was in Mrs. Baker’s second grade class when this idea of a scary roaring lion transforming into a sweet little lamb bathed in sunshine and flowers gave me hope. On a gray winter day, it gave me hope that when things seem scary and difficult at the beginning, at some point they would always ultimately soften and feel easier. Having survived knee-freezing days in my little skirt and wool coat while waiting for the school bus, I witnessed gentle warming by the end of March and this waiting it out became a sort of metaphor for my little girl self. It added to my Sunday school upbringing ideas that if I would just be good enough and suffer through enough that things would all get better. These lessons focused on patient, quiet waiting and remembering that good ultimately would always triumph over bad. In the end it would all be certainly OK if I could just wait it out.

Lately, I find myself less charmed by this belief and struggling with whether patience is at all possible in this day where we desire quicker than instant rewards around every corner. Even in this impatient time, many of us do still seem to think some about the importance of patience relative to our children, to our peer relationships, to ourselves and to our world. We just seem to have a harder and harder time finding it.

“If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” —A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Patience in our peer relationships: This quote from Winnie, one of my favorite mental health experts, is a sweet and gentle reminder to me. It calls up one of my basic beliefs about positive intentions. Regardless of how hard it is to remember sometimes, I believe that everyone is doing the best she can. We often speak of patience when we are talking about the people with whom we are in relationship. We want them to be patient with us and put up with our shortcomings even as we struggle to be just a little more patient with them. We forget sometimes that they may have a little piece of fluff in their ear. Or maybe it’s a big piece of fluff. Whatever it is, we need to take the time to let them hear and to remember they are likely doing the best they can with whatever it is they are dealing with. Most people don’t wake up in the morning thinking they will see whose life they can make difficult. We need to cut each other some slack and find some patience with other people in our lives.

Patience with our children: We speak of patience perhaps most often when we are dealing with our children. We ask them, beg them, to please be patient. Wait until we can take time to put down our work or our phone. Wait until it is their turn to play with the toy. Wait until after their vegetables to eat their ice cream. Interestingly, we often quite impatiently ask them to please be patient for just a little while longer. Sometimes it seems that we need them to be patient so that we can feel maybe just a little calmer and more in control inside, forgetting that they may be struggling with the same wish to have a little more control themselves. Maybe they are doing the best they can do in this moment.

Janu Sirsasana

Patience with ourselves: This month’s yoga pose, janu sirsasana provides an opportunity to practice patience with ourselves. In this forward bending pose, if you look around in yoga class, you will often see students leaning way forward over their extended leg with so much ease and grace. As a new yoga student, it is tempting to emulate what you see and really go for this stretch, maybe even grabbing a strap to get some extra leverage to pull yourself all the way to the floor. This wish to go as far as you can as fast as you can, may lead to back pain; so, it is important to encourage yourself to go slowly and only as far as you can in the present moment to get the stretch your body needs. As in life, this kind of patience with yourself on the mat can lead to a much happier result. With patience and practice you may find yourself eventually moving with more ease into a deeper stretch. Patience can be increased by gently saying to yourself, “the only perfect yoga pose is the pose that is perfect in my body in this very moment.”

“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is the only moment.” Thich Nhat Hanh

Psychologist Carol Bokan of Vermont with daughter psychologist Jen Arner Welsh offer mother-daughter workshops

In yoga we often talk about the importance of staying in the present moment. One of my favorite yoga quotes above stresses the value of realizing that the present moment is the only moment. I really believe in the value of this present moment practice both in yoga and in daily life. In situations off the mat, lately I have tried coming to the present moment while realizing in the way back of my mind that there will perhaps be other moments in which I will be able to be present. My interest in this idea was enhanced by an interaction with my daughter about her parenting experience. When dealing with her daughter’s potty training, I was struck by my daughter’s ability to be more patient by realizing that while this was being difficult, it would probably not always be this way. I clearly remember her saying, “She’s probably not going to go to college in diapers, right?” And she was right, potty training is over and both mom and daughter have moved on to other moments. While only the present moment is guaranteed, my inner second grader still believes that this balance of being patient through difficult times, while still holding on to the hope that times may get easier, is an important idea to consider.

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Mitch McConnell, 2017

When Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced on the senate floor in 2017, Mitch McConnell famously made the statement above to explain the silencing. Instead of squelching Warren, happily for feminists, this became a rallying cry for women all over the country. I found it interesting that a couple of years later when a college-aged woman I know wanted to use this phrase as a tattoo, she wasn’t aware of the source of the quote. Not knowing the Senator Warren reference, this idea of persistent women being silenced was such a pervasive one that it resonated deeply with her, just as it did with so many of us as women. Patience alone can seem like a passive activity. Persistence is about not just waiting but also about putting in some effort in the process.

“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall. It will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.” Margaret Atwood

As I pass through my 70th year, trying to remain present in some moments of real peace and some moments of what feels like sheer terror, I’ve been giving much thought to the need for patience and persistence. I’ve been realizing that sometimes things that seem difficult don’t just require waiting it out and hoping for things to get better. Instead, difficult moments may actually require our active engagement. They require really focusing on what our own values are and finding a way to live in those values as we wait. March may have come in like a lion but we need to be present with her and find our own way to do what we can do to be in the present moment if we are going to make it to a more peaceful spring and summer to follow. Sometimes the moment we are in must simply be patiently endured. Other moments call us to find our own deepest beliefs and resiliency, to wait it out, to do what we can while we wait, and maybe even to find a way around if there is no way through.

Water finds a way through
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Twelve Essential Gifts of Gentle Yoga for 2020 – February

We can practice courage in many little ways every day.

February’s Gift: Courage

This Valentine’s Day month is a good opportunity to consider the gift of courage, because the word “courage” is derived from the French word “coeur” meaning heart. We often think of courage as the quality needed to face a scary challenge or we attribute it to someone we consider a brave hero. In reality, courage isn’t always about facing extremely hard times; instead, it can be something we use on a typical day to do what we need to do.  My favorite way to define courage is as “a firmness of spirit” and I think of courage as a relative quality.  That is, what feels courageous to one person might simply feel like “doing what one has to do,” to another person.  One of my favorite 100-year old yoga students commented in a class that “sometimes it takes courage just to put your feet on the floor and get out of bed in the morning.”  I think that can be true for a lot of us, regardless of our age or physical condition.  

 

Although courage isn’t always about doing something that appears to be large and dramatic, I think it IS always about being the best we can be at a given moment.  I often wonder what it would be like if I could more often be my “highest self,” myself at my very best.   I think this means different things to each of us.  For me, it doesn’t mean striving, or being perfect, but it means taking the high road and not sinking to my lowest place, my easiest place. Courage is finding a place in my head, in my body, and in my heart that makes me feel better about myself. It means deciding I can fly instead of crawl. When I am feeling courage, I believe nearly anything is possible.  I think this kind of courage to aim to be my highest self begins with breath and centering and going inside to find my belief in myself and who I can really be.

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are” --- e.e.cummings

Finding one’s own internal courage is in a way like going back to when we were brand new. In the movie archive of my life, I can easily rewind to one of my favorite scenes. It is a video in my mind’s eye of my daughter as a little girl running on the beach. She was free and happy and easy and believed anything was possible. I have a matching memory from some thirty years later of my grand-daughter making that same amazing run on the beach. In both scenes there is a “firmness of spirit” that seems to be supporting those little girls to run strong and easy. Maintaining that sense of strength and confidence in our best selves often becomes more and more difficult as we grow and maybe especially as we age. I love the e.e. cummings quote: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” As we grow and age and get bumped about by daily challenges both big and small, we can begin to lose that sense of who we can be at our best. It takes courage, a firmness of spirit, to make the effort to stay connected or to reconnect with that strong sense of self and keep moving forward.

Love yourself this Valentine's Day month by finding your courage.

One of yoga’s on-going gifts is the opportunity it provides for us to get in touch with what is going on in both body and mind. Standing in Yoga Warrior 1 pose can bring an awareness of our own grounded-ness and help us find our center. In Warrior 1 our grounding is strong in our feet and in our legs. We feel strong in our backs and centered in our core. We find our breath and our hearts strong in our chests. Our shoulders relax. Our hands can be at our heart or reaching up as the crown of the head raises toward the sky. Our eyes are looking ahead with strength and clarity. Some days we can lift the corners of the mouth up into a smile. On a day when our courage feels long lost and far away, heading to yoga class and grabbing a mat or a chair and slipping into yoga warrior 1 pose can help us find where our courage lives inside. With this courage more available, perhaps our own highest selves feel just a little easier to find and to use.

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Twelve Essential Gifts of Gentle Yoga for this New Year 2020 – January

January’s Gift: Self-Care

At the start of a new year, many of us appreciate the opportunity to start fresh.  We often start January with a plan to transform ourselves and our lives in some kind of significant way.  It is common experience for us to find that maybe even before January ends, we have lost track of our plan and find ourselves back where we started at the end of last year. Often these plans don’t work because they are based on our being NOT something instead of our finding ways to be more authentically ourselves.  Unlike my past resolutions, my plan as 2020 begins is not to become a more perfect yoga practitioner or a more perfect yoga teacher or a more perfect anyone.  This year my plan is to bring more awareness to the gifts that gentle yoga brings to my life and to share that awareness with others. In the next twelve months I will use the WiseWomen VT blog to share what I consider to be Twelve Essential Gifts of Gentle Yoga.

Water Gaze

Ten simple words: “Nothing to prove.  No one to impress.  Everything to share.”

I bring to the blog this first month of 2020 an important lesson that I learned from a dear friend and colleague. This simple quote has gotten me through some rough spots when I have felt anxious about teaching a new class, taking on a new workshop, or facing a challenge in a relationship.  These ten simple words can change the way I approach a situation by really helping me check in with what is important.  I love this quote because it allows me to let go of the need to get everything perfect. It reminds me that my experience doesn’t need to impress anyone.  It also reminds me that often simply sharing my experience and knowledge is all I really need to do to make a difference. In that spirit I begin this process of sharing my experience of gentle yoga’s gifts. If you are a reader of this blog, I hope you will find these gifts useful in your own yoga practice and in your daily life off the mat.   Take from them what you need and use them in the way that works best for you.

Path to Tranquility

Yoga presents us with many gifts and helps us develop these gifts in ourselves and share them with others.

Gentle yoga, specifically, allows us to take time for ourselves, breathe, stretch, increase awareness of our bodies, and relax. In addition to all these benefits, gentle yoga can deepen our ability to develop and practice many positive attitudes and ways of being in the world. It helps us get more in touch with these ways of being inside ourselves. As our own awareness of the attitude increases, this positive way of being can feel like quite a gift. And as the way of being becomes more fully ours it can become a gift that gets shared with others. We all know people who beautifully personify positive attitudes and ways of being and when such a person enters our lives, it indeed feels like a gift. And then in the best kind of situation that gift gets passed on to us and we are able to share it from ourselves to others.

January's gift is the gift of SELF-CARE

To begin the new year, I chose as the first essential gift, SELF-CARE.
Self-care is quite popular in our culture today. Covers of women’s magazines, popular blogs and the titles of self-help books shout to us that we need to take better care of ourselves, so that we can better take care of others: our children, our parents, our spouses, our friends, our work colleagues and our customers. This is similar to when you hear the flight attendant say “Put on your own oxygen mask before you try to help someone else put on her mask.” Makes sense, right? So we are told we need to take time for ourselves, get a massage, say “no” more often, get ourselves to yoga/pilates/barre/the gym/the nutritionist. In other words, the message is that we need to be more perfect in the way we take care of ourselves so that we don’t mess up and not be fully able to take care of others. So, we work at it. We try to urgently press ourselves to “take better care of ourselves.” We try to be “more this” and “less that” and we try to get it right. And we have to remember to do all this self-care without feeling guilty or stressed about it. In other words, self-care becomes one more thing we need to worry about.

The yoga pose, shavasana, practiced as final relaxation at the end of a yoga class may be the ultimate self-care. 

Shavasana is an opportunity to let go of thoughts and physical holding and find ease and comfort and quiet inside. In gentle yoga, we have several opportunities to practice self-care as simply letting go and figuring out what our body needs when we need it.  We can practice stopping, breathing, relaxing, going inside, feeling what we are feeling, observing, and allowing ourselves to be where we are.  Practicing yoga, we go inside where we can find pieces of ourselves that are gifts we want to bring forward into our awareness. Instead of resolving NOT to be a certain way, we can spend energy finding some “ways of being ourselves” and deciding to allow ourselves to really be that way.  And maybe we can find ways to bring these gifts of ourselves more fully forward into our daily lives and interactions with others.  This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get a massage, take a bubble bath, take a nap, or take a walk.  But it does mean that we can take time to check in quietly with ourselves and figure out what it is we really need to feel better and to be more fully ourselves. As we explore these new ways of being more deeply ourselves, perhaps we will find new personal gifts and qualities that can make our lives richer, more meaningful, and maybe even more manageable.

No Mud No Lotus
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Catch Your Breath and Find Your Bliss

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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about breath and breathing.  Throughout my seventy years, I’ve been a little fascinated by the very idea of breath.  In a recent yoga class, the teacher said that breathing is the very first thing you do when you enter the world and the very last thing you do when you leave it.  Hearing this, after I took a deep breath in and out to really take that idea in, I was reminded of how many times in my life breath has made a difference. I remembered trying to learn to swim with a gasping breath taken to the side.  I remembered running feeling breathless in my first 5K, watching a loved one with emphysema struggle with an oxygen tank, seeing my daughter take her first sweet breath, and listening to my mom take her last deep breaths so bravely over several days in a hospital room.   As I constantly run around in all directions trying to do just one more thing and one more thing and one more thing, I often hear myself saying to myself, “I just need to catch my breath.”  Recently, I’ve realized I need to stop chasing my breath to catch it and just slow down and find it right where it has always been, here inside myself.  I am thankful for yoga and the way it reminds me of this simple fact over and over again.

Carol Yoga Knee pose

Yoga has been in my life for twenty-five years. There is rarely a day where I am not on my mat or longing to be there. When I feel stressed and joy is nowhere to be found, I know that I have stepped too far away from my mat for too long. I know I need to find my easy seat and find my breath, go inside, and find home again. I know this path leads to a place of comfort and peace that is as close to bliss as I get.

Twenty-five years ago I saw a small ad for a yoga class at a library an hour from my home in an Indianapolis suburb. Intrigued by the idea, I dragged my sister along to yoga on a tile floor with a group of other puzzled-looking but hopeful yoginis. I tried 3-part breath yogic breath, dirgha, unsuccessfully willing myself to get it right. I couldn’t seem to get the hang of it, but I was pretty sure it was a good idea. A couple of years later, still wondering about the possibility of what yoga might bring, I did a class in a meeting room in a southern Indiana Unitarian Church, where again I gave 3-part breath a try. Still no success but I continued to think it was a good idea.

Five years later, a friend invited me to a class in my new home in Montpelier, Vermont, where yoga is as ubiquitous as maple syrup, dirt roads and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream cones. This time, I walked into a lovely old antique building to a quiet studio with sunset streaming through floor to ceiling windows, a padded floor, soft music that went straight past my brain and into my very heart, and a lovely young teacher named Lindsey. Her voice was sweetly soothing and together with the music and the setting, it took me to a place of exquisitely peaceful relaxation. I sat up after Shavasana and said to my friend, “If I did yoga every day, I know I would become a better person.”

I don’t manage to do yoga every day, but taking classes, teaching yoga and my own home practice still take me to a place I know I need to go. Twenty years later, yoga is still my go to place for relaxation, peace, and joy that feels like the closest thing to bliss I can identify. By the way, dear sweet Lindsey’s older soothing voice is still my favorite guide and yoga music along with a good sunset still just calm me right down Finding myself on my mat took me through a challenging adjustment to a new home. It got me safely through the most difficult of professional experiences, and a teetering-on-the-edge-of-sanity scary divorce and recovery. It has come with me to a new marriage that makes me smile every day, the delight of becoming a grandmother, the pure exhilaration of retirement, an intense yoga teacher training that challenged me on every level, and a reasonably calm transition into my 7th decade this fall.

Now, FINALLY, I love three-part yogic breath. I love breathing in so deeply that my whole torso is a container full of fresh clean energy and my lungs expand so that my diaphragm presses my belly into my waiting palms. Then, taking in more air, my ribs rise and then my collarbones rise; and exhaling so deeply, my collar bones fall, then my ribs fall. My belly button drops back to my spine. I love teaching to help seniors in assisted living do chair yoga to find breath, movement and hopefully some bliss. I love using my own breath and movement to find my own peace and my own place in the chaos surrounding us. I love taking that peace off my mat to share with others. Yoga may or may not make me a better person, but I know it makes me a more peaceful and joyful one. Bliss takes daily practice.

Find yourself a yoga class. Get on a mat or get a chair. And find your breath. And maybe even a little bliss.

Carol Bokan is fairly blissfully retired and practicing bliss daily as a yoga teacher, counselor, grandmother and the owner of WiseWomen VT.com

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5 Benefits of Chair Yoga for the Elderly in Assisted Living

by Carol Bokan, Ph.D.

Yoga, an ancient physical, spiritual and mental practice commonly associated with youthful hippies in this country, is also an excellent exercise choice for the elderly.

In fact, research has found that seniors who reside in retirement villages and assisted living facilities reap many health benefits from attending a beginner’s class in gentle chair yoga.

Seniors recuperating from joint replacement, osteoarthritis sufferers hoping to achieve a greater sense of mobility, the elderly in independent living who fear losing their balance: research shows all these populations can reap significant health benefits from the new practice of seated yoga.

What is Chair Yoga?

Chair yoga, usually a form of gentle Hatha yoga, allows students who face mobility challenges to do yoga poses, also known as asanas, while seated in an arm chair or a wheelchair. This form of yoga also incorporates gentle breathing exercises, known as pranayamas. Pranayamas are designed to help you better move “chi” or energy throughout the body.

Chair yoga is yoga that has been modified so that practitioners do not need to lie down on a mat or kneel on a floor cushion. Chair yoga, also known as sitting yoga or seated yoga, assumes students have a limited range of motion or muscle strength. Sitting allows seniors to practice postures without putting undue stress on their wrists, knees and hips.

Is Chair Yoga Safe for Seniors?

Many research studies have shown that chair yoga is a safe and highly effective exercise for seniors. The one caveat: beginner’s courses should be taught by a certified instructor. Not all traditional poses as practiced in standing yoga are suitable for seated yoga.  Certified instructors are trained to assist seniors in selecting the poses best suited to the flexibility and range of motion capabilities of aging joints and muscles.

A New Jersey research study of sitting yoga classes for seniors published in 2012 in the International Journal of Yoga followed sixteen elderly residents – women and men in their 80’s and 90’s, with an average age of 88 — who resided in an assisted living facility. That study, as well as others cited below, uncovered five clear benefits of seated yoga for seniors.

 

Dr. Carol Bokan, certified Lakshmi Voelker Chair Yoga instructor, teaches chair and gentle yoga classes at Living Well, Bristol, Vermont
Seated Yoga Increases Balance

The New Jersey participants volunteered to attend structured chair yoga classes twice a week for eight weeks. They hoped to increase their balance and strength while simultaneously reducing their risk and fear of falling.

The poses taught were highly effective at reducing anxieties about falling while also reducing falls and increasing feelings of self-efficacy among the high-risk population studied.

Since about half of all seniors over the age of 80 fall annually due to balance and muscle strength issues, yoga is an excellent preventive exercise for everyone as they age.

Chair Yoga Helps Seniors Increase Mobility

The New Jersey assisted living study cited above was designed to see if balance and mobility could be significantly improved in the elderly through sitting yoga exercises.  The study centered on asanas (postures) that benefit the musculoskeletal system. The sitting poses taught were offered in modified form based on gentle hatha yoga poses.

The study found that not only did an 8-week chair yoga regime increase muscle strength and balance among seniors it reduced participants fear of falling. Moreover practicing yoga for 8 weeks twice a week also decreased the participants reliance on mobility devices.

Sitting Yoga Lifts Depression & Elevates Mood

The New Jersey study also found that seniors in assisted living who participated in twice weekly chair yoga sessions experienced greater feelings of well-being and efficacy.

A similar mood-lifting effect was found in an Ohio study of one-hundred thirty-five healthy men and women (ages 65-85) who underwent yoga training for seniors The group practiced traditional standing poses for a six month period.

Future research on chair yoga will likely focus on its specific mood altering effects. The socialization aspect of attending a class often lifts mood. Mastering a new skill, like yoga, often leads to an increased sense of efficacy and optimism. Indeed, one of the great benefits of attending a chair yoga class is the opportunity to meet new friends who share your interests.

Yoga Benefits and Increases Muscle Strength

The New Jersey study, which looked at seniors in assisted living deemed at “high-risk” for falls, found that an 8-week course of chair yoga taught by a certified instructor led to significantly improved muscle strength. Improvements in muscle strength correlate highly with a decreased risk of falling or losing one’s balance.

Chair Yoga Relieves Joint Pain from Arthritis

A Florida Atlantic University research study recently revealed that chair yoga significantly decreases pain from osteoarthritis while simultaneously increasing flexibility.

The Florida study recruited 131 older adults with osteoarthritis. The seniors attended 45-minute seated yoga sessions twice a week for 8 weeks. The study found that participants who suffered from arthritis in their lower extremities — knee, hip, ankle or foot – all benefited from chair yoga exercises.

Many studies of traditional standing yoga have shown that regular yoga practice can also aid with or help seniors achieve the following:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower A1C (for diabetes)
  • Increased breathing and respiratory function
  • Better sleep

Beginning Yoga for Seniors

You don’t need to have any previous experience with yoga to get started with chair yoga. Nor do you need any special equipment, yoga pants, cushions, incense sticks or mats. You can attend chair yoga class as you are.

Wear loose fitting street clothes. Comfortable garments that do not restrict your range of movement are great. T-shirts, capri pants, sweat pants, shorts and sneakers abound.

Sit down. 

Take a deep breath.  

And let’s get started.

Dr. Carol Bokan holds a 200-hour yoga teacher certification from the Kripalu Center. She also holds a Lakshmi Voelker Chair Yoga Teaching certification.

Carol Bokan holds a Ph.D. in Counseling from Purdue University. She also holds a National Certified Counselor credential and a Career Development Facilitator credential. She is recently retired from a 45-year career in counseling and education. Carol chose yoga as a “retirement” transition career. She holds a 200-hour yoga teacher certification from the Kripalu Center. She also holds a Lakshmi Voelker Chair Yoga Teaching certification. Carol teaches gentle yoga and chair yoga at several locations in Burlington, Vermont, May through December. A snow-bird, she teaches in the Ft. Myers, Florida area in the winter months of January through April. She is a grandmother of 8.

Contact Carol

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