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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Twelve Essential Gifts of Gentle Yoga for 2020 – June

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“What I do at this moment is all that I have control over.” Dr. Gloria Petruzselli

June's Gift: Acceptance

As I do most days lately, I woke up this morning remembering we are still in a worldwide pandemic. And as I do most days, I reminded myself that my own moderately annoying and sometimes troubling experience has been many times over easier than the experience for so many people.  That said, my distress is my distress and here’s where I am at the moment. This morning I had a clear and happy plan to write my June blog post on acceptance. On the 9th day of my strict Vermont Covid 19 quarantine, after a somewhat daunting drive from Florida, all was going reasonably well. Looking longingly out at a beautiful summer day, I was actually feeling pretty good. Yesterday was slightly better than the day before.  Yesterday, I hadn’t seen quite so many wasps invading our three-season room, so maybe I didn’t have to call in an exterminator. Yesterday, unlike the day before, I had not experienced a single encounter with the determined little snake living under the back deck who was eager to join me at even a slight opening of the patio door.  We had found a way to get groceries delivered and were well supplied with food (and even wine).  After a Saturday-long struggle installing a new cable box, we were set with movies. Last night we finally figured out how to open the painted-stuck bedroom windows and a cool breeze had surrounded me in a relaxed, deep sleep. As a dear friend always reminds me “these are quality problems I have,” right?  Now happily enrolled in an online yoga program, I enjoyed a sweet first class from Kripalu Center via zoom, and it seemed that life was finally beginning to get a bit back to normal.   Today I was set for a live- stream yoga class, a relaxed brunch with my husband, and Facetime with my grand-daughter.  I could see and feel the end of quarantine just around the corner and soon-to-be sunny walks by the lake were in my future.  Two hours of quiet writing time loomed ahead of me as a true pleasure as I sat down with my coffee and my laptop.  I thought to myself, “you got this.”

A short thirty minutes into my peaceful writing time, my husband appeared at my closed writing space door, and calmly said, “the upstairs bedroom window just fell two stories to the ground.”  He pulled on his shoes and his mask and ran just outside the door to fetch a big presumed-shattered window.  Finding it was (amazingly) still in one piece but not possible for us to put back into place, we spent the next hour figuring out how to cover the gaping hole in our bedroom with plastic.  We started searching online for window repair people who could come for an appropriately distanced visit after quarantine ends.  Dutifully and carefully taping ourselves in with plastic we found in the basement seemed the perfect metaphor for where we were this morning. Really wanting all the windows WIDE open, we actively worked together to safely seal this one up as best we could.  The window taping worked great and happily the day went only slightly downhill from there. “At least the plastic is clear,” we said to ourselves. Now eight hours later, I am back at the computer feeling a heightened need to practice acceptance and find a way to better tolerate distress.  After all, things aren’t that bad for me right here, right now; nevertheless, I am still feeling short on acceptance and long on aggravation.

“Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then keep on going.”– Mary Oliver

River Keeps Going

Doing some research on acceptance, I bumped into information on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).  As I began to educate myself a bit about this therapy approach, I learned that DBT was developed by Marcia Linehan in the 1970s through her work with clients with borderline personality disorder.  DBT is especially appealing to me because of its connection to Buddhism and its focus on mindfulness.  There is quite a bit of info about DBT on line and I easily located several DBT therapists, so check this out online if you want to learn more. While this form of therapy has been used in variety of treatment settings, it has some basic tools that can be useful for anyone in daily life.  (Sevlever, Melina, PhD., manhattanpsychologygroup.com)

Two DBT concepts that seem particularly relevant today are the idea of “radical acceptance” and a set of skills called “distress tolerance skills.”   For the past several months, and especially in the last couple of weeks as we have begun to move into a new phase of dealing with the Covid 19 pandemic, I have been looking for words to describe what I feel like I need to do to find acceptance to transition to a next step.  The term “radical acceptance” makes sense to me in this context.  Radical acceptance means coming to a place where we accept that things are the way they are.  It doesn’t mean, we have to like the way things are. It just means deciding to stop fighting the way things are.  It means stopping complaining and stopping trying to change the situation to some other situation. It means not being in denial.  It means looking the reality straight in the face.  Accepting the situation RADICALLY means, doing so fully and completely.  As Swami Kripalu would say, this means accepting the situation as it is, without judgment.

DBT uses “distress tolerance skills” to help one deal with painful emotions without making the situation worse.  The “Wise Mind Accepts” below are ways to distract from one’s emotional response to a distressful situation.  Some of these techniques may work for some of us some of the time.  They are worth a try to see if we can let go of some of the emotionality in the situation to move closer to acceptance so that we can figure out how to move forward instead of just being stuck in sadness, worry, fear and anger. We could try one or two and see how they work.  The first letters of each skill go together to form the word “ACCEPTS.” Dr. Melina Sevlever offers the examples below. (Sevlever, Melina, PhD., manhattanpsychologygroup.com)

Activities:  Engage in some kind of healthy activity and shift your attention to that activity. Examples include calling a friend, baking cookies, and going for a bike ride.

Contributing: Contribute to someone else.  Surprise someone with a thoughtful gesture or volunteer. Doing things for other people causes us to feel better.

Comparisons: Compare yourself to those less fortunate or to yourself at a time when things were worse. Try to come up with a list of things you feel grateful for. Your pain is still valid, but the focus is to put it in perspective for now so you can tolerate what you are feeling in the moment.

Emotions: Create a different emotional experience by listening to something that usually makes you laugh or feel happy. Listen to your favorite upbeat song or put on a funny video.

Pushing Away: For the moment, decide that you will put thinking about the crisis on the backburner and chose to think about something else. This does not mean we ignore our problems, it means we decide to come back to it at a time when we are more able to handle it.

Thoughts: Replace your thoughts with any other thoughts that are neutral and unrelated to the situation. If you fill your head with other thoughts, there will be less room for thoughts related to the problem. You can do brain teasers, sing songs, imagine positive memories.

Sensations: Distract yourself with physical senses. Our bodies are designed to focus on new or intense sensations. If you engage your body in a sensory experience, such as putting your face in cold water, holding an ice cube, soaking your feet in hot water, your thoughts and focus will follow.

Another example of an activity to shift your attention:

“Petunia takes her mind off her problems by reading about Dr. Who”

Petunia the Pig
Photo Credit: V.A.Welsh

                                Reading by Veronica A. Welsh, age 8

reading beneath

the beautiful blue sky

in a fantisy or mystery

hearing the birds chirping

like there talking to me

and the flowers’ fun singing

in a

fun and beautiful land

of

reading

This month’s yoga pose: Yoga Mudra Pose

Yoga Mudra Pose

Don’t practice yoga mudra pose if you have recent chronic back, knee, abdominal, or shoulder injury or injury or inflammation of the eyes or ears or uncontrolled high blood pressure. 

Yoga Mudra means “the symbol of yogaand is done with an attitude of surrender, placing the head below the heart and with great awareness of the breath. Begin seated on lower legs with knees together.  Lengthen though the waist and reach through the crown of the head.  Raise your arms in front of you.  Sweep arms to the side and back, interlacing the fingers if possible and keeping the elbows unlocked.  Reach your knuckles down toward the floor, lengthening the arms and hugging shoulder blades together as you open the sternum. Lifting the tail bone, hinge forward from the hips and extend the torso over the thighs. Bring the forehead to the floor or a block or cushion.  Reach your knuckles away as you lift arms overhead pressing outer edges of the hands toward the floor in front of you.  To release, extend sternum forward and up and reach back through knuckles, and raise shoulders over waist.  Release hands to thighs.

Wishing you a gentle summer entry with time for finding acceptance of what is.

I hope the idea of radical acceptance provides some support as you begin this unusual summer and work to find moments of acceptance and ease in our shared new normal.  Take some deep breaths, let go of judgment, work on tolerating the distress, and do what you can to move yourself gently into a welcoming summer.

Summer Flower
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Twelve Essential Gifts of Gentle Yoga for 2020 – May

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"Stress is caused by being 'here', but wanting to be 'there'." Eckhart Tolle

May’s Gift: Present Moment Awareness

This morning I sat down to work on my blog for May with a deep awareness of the usual heavy heart I have been carrying around lately. I am guessing I am not alone in this feeling as we all struggle to make our way through the day with our own versions of pandemic-induced problems. For those of us with the luxury of staying home and isolating, each day seems to require a new effort to move toward optimism and away from sadness, depression, worry and frustration. For those of us without the luxury of being homebound, who are out in the world working and struggling to keep body and soul together each in our own way, the feelings are probably even more challenging. Wherever we are, nothing seems normal, right or very manageable. Checking out my proposed list of blog topics for the year, I had mixed feelings when I realized the May gift was to be “present moment awareness.” I felt relieved to see this topic on my list because I’ve used it so often in yoga classes, with clients in therapy, and for myself in daily living that it seemed like a familiar old friend. Then I realized that most of my present moments lately haven’t felt that great and so with an “ugh” in my mind and a sigh in my heart, I tried to figure out where to begin.

 

“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

I pulled out my computer and set out to research the idea of “present moment awareness” and this month’s yoga pose, angeli mudra. Surely, I thought, if I just go out there and look around, I’ll bump into a place to start writing. The first thing that came to mind was the quote I often use in class from Thich Nhat Hahn so I typed that onto my blank page. Yes, breathing in and breathing out are good starting points. Taking my own deep breath and diving in, I decided to try to find out more about the author of this quote, a Zen master and peace activist who I knew little about. Reading about him, I was in awe of this man and could not understand how I had managed to not know more about his amazing life. Having lived over forty years in exile from his native Vietnam because of his efforts to end the Vietnam war, in his late eighties after suffering a stroke and unable to speak, he was finally allowed to return to live again in Vietnam. During his lifetime, he established several important Buddhist centers throughout the world; taught at Princeton, Columbia and the Sorbonne; and was a beloved teacher to hundreds of thousands. His teachings, poetry and art are known and loved worldwide. If you want to feel inspired by what one person can do to change the world, click on the link below to read his life story. 
https://plumvillage.org/about/thich-nhat-hanh/biography/

Beginning my work on this blog as I often do, I looked at the field of positive psychology and found an interesting article called “How to Live in the Present Moment: 35 Exercises and Tools” by Courtney E. Ackerman, M.Sc. on the website, www.positivepsychology.com
Ackerman offered some great suggestions and resources for present moment awareness and I bookmarked this to come back to at some point. Check out the link to read this excellent article: https://positivepsychology.com/present-moment/
As often happens in this kind of Internet search, as luck would have it, the author led me directly to a talk by my new-found inspiration, Thich Nhat Hanh. Perfect. The video was about present moment awareness…the very topic for my yoga class theme where I had used his quote (the one posted just above). “Breathing in I calm body and mind. Breathing out I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is the only moment.” I certainly do love that quote and from the first time I heard it, I’ve always found it calmed me so immediately and so sweetly. I clicked on the YouTube video, started to watch and thought to myself, “Wow, this is great, but I really don’t have time to watch this whole thing…It is about an hour long and I have to get this blog written and get on with my day!” After all I did have a walk to do and a face time with my grand-daughter, and Lindsay’s wonderful 4:45 yoga class on zoom. This beautiful monk’s words seemed interesting and important, but his language wasn’t that easy to understand, so I decided I would fast forward the video and see what I could pick up. Moving the little red dot forward on the screen, I listened in a couple of points and realized, that it did all seem pretty interesting. Then I heard him say that we are all running all the time, even in our sleep. And then, “If you don’t know how to stop running, the healing cannot take place.” Ok. Ok, I thought to myself. I will indeed stop running and sit down and go back to the beginning. So, the hour of listening was totally worth the hour. Find yourself an hour and check it out at the link below. I don’t think you will regret it. I’ve typed the short version of my reaction his wonderful talk below. Sometimes, less is more, but in this case, I encourage you to take the time to really listen to these inspiring words at:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N93IvR45D80&t=6s

I can never possibly perfectly explain with proper depth and understanding the beautiful thoughts of this amazing 92-year-old monk whose life is an epic story of suffering and sacrifice and learning and teaching. What I did take away for myself in my own simple way this morning, however, were some lovely ideas which I share with you here. 

  • Stopping is so important. In the Buddhist tradition (in my very simple understanding), samatha (pronounced shamatha) means” to stop. “
  • Our bodies do not stop. They have the habit of running and they run even when we sleep. Our lungs breathe, our heart beats, our blood flows.
  • Our minds do not stop.
  • Our bodies and our minds contain each other. Helping one to stop helps the other to stop.
  • Stopping can help us heal ourselves. It can help more than anything else we might do for us to stop, breathe in, be in the present moment, listen to our bodies, appreciate our bodies, and breathe out with a loving smile.
  • And when we can begin to heal ourselves, we can begin to be a healer for others around us.
  • We can stop and listen to the music of our hearts and our breath.
  • We can STOP when we are sitting, standing, walking or lying down, by remembering that our in-breath isn’t about a fight. Our in-breath is an expression of our arrival. It is a way of saying, “I have arrived, I am home.”

This month’s yoga pose is actually a mudra, angeli mudra. While so many of us are staying home these days, angeli mudra can help us to say, “I have arrived, I am home.”

Angeli Mudra

A mudra is a placing of the hands in a certain way to regulate energy flow and redirect energy to a particular area of the body. Angeli mudra is a greeting used in yoga and it is often used with the word Namaste. Namaste has many definitions, and my favorite is, “the light in me bows to the light in you.” We use angeli mudra often at the beginning and the end of yoga class and it is also used in certain yoga poses, most typically tadasana (mountain pose) and vrksasana (tree pose) as a way of centering oneself in the body. Angeli mudra is a way of aligning our mind, our feelings and our actions by bringing the left and right sides of the body and the mind into the heart center. Angeli can help to open the heart, reduce stress, and calm the mind. We can begin to do angeli mudra, seated, by finding an easy comfortable seat. Bring the palms together in front of the heart, with the palms resting lightly together and the thumbs resting lightly on the sternum. Rather than pressing palms into each other, leave a very slight opening where you can imagine placing an intention or wish for yourself or for the world. You may lower your chin slightly toward the heart and say Namaste. You might also try saying softly to yourself, “I have arrived. I am home.”

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Twelve Essential Gifts of Gentle Yoga for 2020 – April

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If you are reading this in search of some bright rays of optimism, I’m hoping that you will find them here as I seek to find them, myself.

April's Gift: Optimism

Several months ago when I developed a list of themes for this blog, optimism seemed like a perfect choice for April, the month of daffodils, baby leaves on trees, and greener grass. After all, April often finds us appreciating the beauty of new growth outside in our lawns and in the woods and welcoming a new attitude about the future in our hearts. This April, for everyone in the world, optimism seems hard to find. I’ve been postponing sitting down to write this until I could get my attitude in the right place. I have been trying, as a friend suggested, to “get my head screwed on right” and to find my usual positive attitude. This morning, I’ve decided to sit down at the computer and write about what is real and see if the idea of optimism could help move me to be more optimistic

My go-to place when I’m trying to figure something out has always been the library. In recent years, my library has often become my laptop. This week with the library closed, my laptop is the only option for my usual effort to find “the truth” somewhere out there. Someone told me once that I seem to always believe there is an “expert” for every possible problem and I think that is actually my tendency. My “expert” place to start to read about optimism most recently has been the field of positive psychology. The field’s, founder, Dr. Martin Seligman, defines optimism as “reacting to problems with a sense of confidence and high personal ability.” On the website Pursuit of Happiness.org, the author states that according to Seligman, optimistic people believe that negative events are temporary, limited in scope (instead of pervading every aspect of a person’s life), and manageable. Seligman describes optimism as having three features including:

  • Permanence: Optimists believe the causes of bad events are temporary and the causes of good events are permanent. Pessimists believe the causes of bad events are permanent and the causes of good events are temporary.
  • Pervasiveness: Optimists believe the causes of bad events are just part of a particular area of life and the causes of good events are pervasive. Pessimists do the opposite. If something bad happens they think this badness affects everything and if something good happens they think this is just in the one particular moment.
  • Personalization: An optimist tends to take credit for good events and attribute bad events to external causes – luck and happenstance, or someone else’s mistake. The pessimist takes responsibility for bad events and not for positive ones.

In his 1991 book, Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman described his theory of optimism and a type of “explanatory style,” a way we have of explaining what happens to us. He says that “if every bad thing is permanent, life-altering, and our fault, we’re bound to be pessimistic about the future; if it’s temporary, limited, and a fluke, it’s easier to be optimistic. If you want to read more about these ideas, Seligman’s books and a variety of websites featuring his work are available on line.

Yesterday morning I sat in Florida, struggling to think about the idea of optimism at a time when nearly everything I see and hear and literally EVERY SURFACE I MIGHT TOUCH (cardboard, plastic, metal, etc.!) feels negative, scary and dangerous. Happily, later in the day I had the great fortune to do a virtual class with my favorite yoga teacher, Lindsay Armstrong from Embodied Yoga in Montpelier, Vermont. One of the few bright spots in the last few weeks has been Lindsay’s virtual classes. As is so often the case, yoga helped me make connections between what I was feeling and several other things I already knew. These connections happened during and after class in a way that was energizing and calming all at the same time. The theme for the class was Yoga Sutras 2.33 and 2.34, Cultivating Opposites. The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali are 2500-year-old words of wisdom which describe yoga philosophy. I was delighted to learn about Vitarka Badhane Pratipaksha Bhavana, the idea of cultivating opposites, because it was exactly the kind of concept I had been craving.

This morning I went to my laptop to read more about Cultivating Opposites and to think about how it might relate to my unsuccessful ability to find and then to retain any sense of optimism. My internet search led me to several articles about Yoga Sutra 2.33. Among others, one short helpful online article by Richard Parenti reminded me of the importance of paying attention to our feelings, acknowledging them, making peace with them and then trying to move ourselves toward their opposite. I really appreciate Parenti’s idea that we attract what we think and feel and his statement that “Nothing is more important than to know how to feel good.” In feeling good, we can do so much more to help both ourselves and others. As Lindsay had said in class yesterday, I discovered that my modern-day psychology resources matched up with ancient wisdom. Cultivating opposites is a similar notion to the kind of cognitive reframing I used to do with clients in therapy. I remembered how important reframing negative thinking can be in changing how one feels. I also remembered the daily yoga practice I created a few years ago and important pieces of it I had slipped away from. I resolved to get myself back to that regular part of my practice and will say more about that later. I realized that the basic idea of cultivating optimism begins with really identifying and sitting with a feeling that is negative (like sadness, fear, or worry) and then moving away from it and moving as much as possible toward its opposite, optimism. Here is the link to the Parenti article. https://www.ahymsin.org/docs2/News/1606/07.html

In my personal yoga practice, I use a simple tool I learned as a therapist. The Awareness Wheel (Miller, Sherod and Phyllis, Interpersonal Communication Programs, Inc.) identifies a simple internal process of SENSE-THINK-FEEL-WANT-DO. The idea is that in a situation you can slow down your awareness and change how you feel and how you decide to act by slowing yourself down and moving through the steps in the wheel. You begin by noticing what is coming in through all your senses. What do you SENSE? Then you can notice what you THINK as you respond to these sensations. Next you notice how these thoughts make you FEEL. Then notice what intentions arise from these thoughts. What do you WANT? And then what do you DO? At any point in this wheel, you can stop and pause and make change. This idea of changing your thinking is used in many forms of therapy and it was fascinating to me to connect modern psychology to the 2500-year-old philosophy of the Yoga Sutras, cultivating opposites. In my personal yoga practice, I have used the awareness wheel tool to bring focus to an intention at the end of my practice and to try to take myself from the mat back to my life with a different, more positive feeling. Today I decided that going forward I will also try this process at the beginning of my practice. I began to connect the awareness wheel idea to the idea of cultivating optimism, acknowledging a negative feeling and moving away from it to feel its opposite. So, if I could decide to notice what I am sensing and make a change at the point of thinking I could change the way I feel, which would lead me to a different want and a different action than I might have had with my negative thinking.

Playing with the idea of cultivating opposites, I decided to try to work the awareness wheel idea backwards a bit from the feeling of optimism to its opposite. If I wanted to try cultivating optimism, maybe I could try to identify what I am feeling that is the opposite of that. What came to me was pessimism, but I realized pessimism isn’t really a basic feeling. Remembering that our four basic feelings are mad, sad, glad and afraid, I realized I wasn’t just feeling one of these feelings but a mixture of all of them pretty much all the time! Clearly, I am feeling everything but glad…I am mad/angry, sad/depressed, afraid/terrified. Taking in all the news through all my senses and thinking so negatively, I am ending up in a very tough place. How could I switch mad to loving, sad to happy, afraid to brave? Maybe I need to spend more time taking each of them one by one, acknowledge them and see if I can move away from them toward their opposite. I am promising myself to work on this daily in my practice.

I recognize that for a variety of reasons we often decide we need to try to stop feeling one thing and pretend we are feeling another. This kind of pretending can’t really work because it is a lie.  The idea of “fake it till you make it” has always made a little sense for me, but right now that feels unrealistic.  Instead maybe we need to find the real feeling…visualize or imagine ourselves moving at least a bit way from it…imagine it’s opposite and do what we can to cultivate that opposite.   For example, notice fear.  Think about its opposite, courage.  Think about times we have felt fear and moved through it…think about what courage we have inside.  Where does it live in our bodies?  How can we notice courage and feel it and try to move it forward inside ourselves in some way and then take it with us outside ourselves to share with someone else? 

The "next right step" can help us cultivate optimism.

In February, back when life was sweet and so much easier (too bad we didn’t really NOTICE that), my amazing 7-year-old grand-daughter and I went to see Frozen 2. Not a big fan of Frozen, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this movie as much as I did. One particular song, “The Next Right Thing,” melted my heart and made me cry. In the scene, Anna’s sister Elsa was missing and her dear friend Olaf the snowman was melting. Sad and scared and alone and watching her friend slowly dying, the sweet character Anna, sang the words below. This morning I was thinking about how sad and lost I feel so often these days. Wondering about the importance of recognizing the depth of our feelings and taking as many steps as we can toward their opposite, I was reminded of the idea of “The Next Right Thing.” The lyrics are below. I love the way Anna recognizes her deep sadness and talks herself into moving away from her sad feelings to do the next right thing. Instead of pretending optimism, maybe we need to sit quietly with ourselves and recognize we are feeling cold, and empty and numb. And then we perhaps can find the next right thing to move us away from that feeling. This movement can happen even if we feel we are stumbling blindly toward the light. It is the next right step and the next right step and the next one that can help us cultivate optimism, pessimism’s opposite that we need so much.

The Next Right Thing (from Frozen 2)
I’ve seen dark before, but not like this. This is cold, this is empty, this is numb.
The life I knew is over, the lights are out. Hello, darkness, I’m ready to succumb.

I follow you around, I always have, but you’ve gone to a place I cannot find.
This grief has a gravity, it pulls me down, but a tiny voice whispers in my mind
You are lost, hope is gone, but you must go on
And do the next right thing.

Can there be a day beyond this night? I don’t know any more what is true
I can’t find my direction, I’m all alone. The only star that guided me was you
How to rise from the floor? But it’s not you I’m rising for.
Just do the next right thing

Take a step, step again. It is all that I can to do the next right thing.
I won’t look too far ahead. It’s too much for me to take.
But break it down to this next breath, this next step.
This next choice is one that I can make
So I’ll walk through this night, stumbling blindly toward the light
And do the next right thing

And, with it done, what comes then?
When it’s clear that everything will never be the same again
Then I’ll make the choice to hear that voice
And do the next right thing

If you haven’t heard Kristen Bell’s beautiful emotion-filled voice singing “The Next Right Thing,” consider listening to it. I suggest listening to this and doing the activity below, with a gentle warning that doing so might put you in touch with your own sadness. I’ve noticed that music, at least for many of us, can be a powerful way to tap into deep feelings. If you’re not up for this kind of serious work at the moment, stay where you are and save it for when you have a time to go there…maybe when you have someone nearby in person or on the phone who can support you in the effort to move yourself away from sadness to optimism.
IF you are up for this emotional work, here’s a link to use to listen. IF you can’t make the link work, it’s an easy google to find a version of the song. 

Photo credit: Thanks to Lindsey Smith

Moving to an opposite type of feeling some requires work. Try this if you feel up for it and have the support you need to work through the activity.

Find a quiet place (and an in-person or on-the-phone support if you think you might need one), and settle yourself in quietly. Close your eyes and take some gentle breaths in and out and give this song a listen. If it touches your difficult feelings, acknowledge them. Trying to always push them down and pretend they aren’t there probably won’t really make them go away. Instead, listen and notice what you notice. In the wisdom of a favorite Kripalu practice try to do this: breathe, relax, feel, watch and then allow your feelings to simply be what they are. Don’t try to change them just witness them. Then see yourself stepping slowly away from the negative feelings and work to moving yourself to the opposite, optimism. Yes, it is WORK. To do this, you might try some of these ideas:

  • Do some yoga on the mat or in a chair. One optimistic note is that there are so many great yoga classes online right now. If you are looking for a great in-person or virtual class to try, check out Lindsay Armstrong’s classes at Embodied in Montpelier, Vermont.  embodiedvermont.com
  • Try remembering a time when you felt optimistic and things worked out well. Notice all the details of that situation inside and out.  What was the situation, what did you do?  Write this down and put it somewhere you can find it and read it when you need it.
  • Try identifying where optimism lives in your body and try to feel it there. Smile and feel it some more. Notice, really notice what optimism feels like and what it makes you want to do.
  • Make a list of reasons to feel optimistic. IF you can’t think of anything right away, make some up or connect with a friend and ask them to help you think of some.
  • Visualize a person who is an optimist and notice what they are like. Write a letter to this person and send them gratitude. Mail it to them or to yourself.
  • Make a gratitude list. Keep it where you can find it when you need it. Add to it.
  • Make a list of people you can call when you are feeling NOT optimistic and when you are feeling optimistic. And call them.
  • Call a friend and talk together about what the two of you can be optimistic about and grateful for. Talk about how you might support each other in finding and maintaining optimism instead of staying stuck in sadness, anger and fear.
  • Write in your journal about optimism and where you have found it and where you might find it again. Write about what it feels like to move away from the negative feelings and then write about what optimism feels like inside and where it is taking you.
  • Breathe in visualizing optimism and breathing out, visualize letting go of sadness, anger and/or fear.
  • Try singing along LOUDLY with “Do the Next Right Thing’ and try smiling when you sing it. Or find another piece of music that makes you feel good and play it and sing along.
  • Stand tall and let yourself shake off negative feelings from your head to your toes. Reach up tall with both arms and laugh yourself down to your toes. Rise up and do it again.
  • Find a piece of art that makes you feel good and appreciate it or try drawing your feelings of optimism. Put your picture in a frame or on your refrigerator!
  • Practice recognizing what you are feeling and move yourself toward its opposite and practice being in that opposite feeling.
  • And practice.  And practice some more. 
  • And be gentle with yourself in this practice.
Photo credit: Rich Bokan

APRIL’S YOGA POSE: Warrior 2, Virabhadrasana

This month’s yoga pose, Warrior 2, is an opportunity to plant ourselves firmly in the present moment and find our own strength. We face the side of the mat and center our weight evenly between firmly grounded feet on strong legs. With a strong bent front leg (knee over ankle) and powerful back leg, the body faces to the side. Arms are extended at shoulder height palms down, one arm toward the front and one toward the back, parallel to the floor. We turn the head to look over the front arm, extending fingers long to each side, shoulders down, crown of head reaching to the sky. Maybe we can lift the corners of the mouth gently toward the ears. Chin is parallel to the floor and eyes are clear and strong. We can change our perspective to turn the head and look back over the back arm, maybe recognizing and accepting sadness or anger or fear. Then turning forward to look over the front arm, let us imagine we can do the next right thing to move in our minds and in our hearts toward optimism, love, happiness, and courage. And let those feelings settle deep inside.

Maybe in this calm and centered moment as quiet warriors we can even imagine ourselves arriving in a feeling place the opposite of the dark place where we have been living lately. Maybe we can find a small ray of optimism and hold onto it as best we can.

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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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