Saturday, December 26, 2009

Embodied grounding

My first Yoga teacher was smallish in stature, and though in her 60s, walked with a spine as straight and flexible as a pine tree. With the gentlest and most unassuming disposition, she spoke like she was softly singing.

She once told me that in preparation for speaking to her teacher about a conflict, she would do the Warrior Pose. I had not thought of using parts of my Yoga class off the mat to compliment different needs during the day but much later when I revealed to a minister that I was terrified of public speaking, he suggested that while speaking I focus on grounding my feet into the floor, as we do in standing Yoga poses.

It's true that how we carry and move our bodies affects our moods and alters our interactions with others and our environment.

In standing Yoga poses, we focus on the feet - how the weight is carried in the feet and connecting them solidly with the mat and the floor. In one of my favorite standing poses, the Tree Pose, I imagine roots growing from my soles into the Earth - deep and wide. From this rootedness, I can with ease expand my energy, spine, and arms up and out.

Recently I had an opportunity to practice the power of rootedness during an interview. Already a nerve-racking experience, I arrived a few minutes late before a panel of five people. It was the last interview of the day and one of the interviewers proceeded to tell me that there had been plenty of tardiness that day and how disrespectful this was to the panel. As he asked me how long it took to drive from my home to the interview, I began to move my awareness down into my feet and planted them firmly into the floor. Keeping my awareness in my body through watching my breath and feeling the solidity of the floor, I surprisingly answered the questions with unrecognizable calm. I was so amazed by the difference I felt during that interview that I truly understood the power of being grounded.

When you're in the midst of angst, your automatic responses will fall back upon who you are at your core, and if you're practicing Yoga regularly, embodied grounding is a part of you and will, more often than not, arise as needed. ... Just a little encouragement to practice regularly whatever you do to connect with your center - for yourself and those around you.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Show me your belly

There is something about the nature of the belly that feels warm, soft, open. Whether it’s that of my cat, husband, or my own - connecting with the belly feels like I’m connecting with one’s true essence.

In the Chinese and Japanese traditions, they believe that the navel contains one’s Dantien or energetic center. By focusing on that area during particular movements, they say one can strengthen their life force.

The naval is also the place where we, as mammals, were connected to our mothers in a nurturing, symbiotic relationship from conception to birth.

In Yoga we learn that one of the most fundamental and essential means of nurturing ourselves is through belly breathing. The science of belly breathing states that it activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which elicits the relaxation response and lowers blood pressure, turns on our immunity, calms unruly emotions, and prevents premature aging. I like to think that belly breathing’s greatest gift is the feeling of being more connected to all of life.

To a fault, the belly is the most honest, open and exposed place on a person. Animals know this. To have an animal turn over and bear their belly is a sign of vulnerability.

Yet, within it’s openness also resides its strength. Far below language and facial expressions, the belly’s amazing sounding board registers our intuition. For many of us, the first sign of something ‘not right’ shows up in our gut. It’s also the place that tells us when things are true and good by the overall warm feeling emanating from the belly.

In Mary Oliver’s poem, Wild Geese, she says, “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” The soft animal of my body is my belly and I’m learning to trust this truth.

Friday, November 27, 2009

In Praise of Softness

Just the other night, someone told me that they didn't know what they'd be like if they didn't have Yoga in their life, and I feel the same way.

So grateful.

Today what Yoga has given me is an easy way to connect with the soft underbelly rhythm of life, from the inside out.

Allowing the breath to hold me like a safe cradle, rocking back-and-forth, I feel the aliveness and warmth that arises from my core and tells me that, in this moment, everything is ok.

And, every thing IS ok.

In praise of softness.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Getting Unstuck

Our mama chickie, Loretta Hen, recently got an egg stuck inside of her. I'd never seen or even heard of such a thing, but there she was walking around in our backyard taking one step, squatting, huffing, letting out a squeal and then starting the whole thing over again. She looked exhausted so we brought her inside to see if we could help.

We didn't know exactly what was going on. But by the looks of it, she seemed to be trying to give birth - holding her breath, pushing, dropping her tail, and then letting out the most human-sounding squeal I've ever heard from a Hen.
We did a quick search on the internet and figured it was a stuck egg, which we could barely see cresting from her hind-end.

We put her in warm water which seemed to stop the contractions and allowed her to rest, but she also stopped trying to push. We then massaged her belly and sides, and to no avail. Some suggested putting oil around the egg, which I attempted with my smallest finger. If you would have told me I'd have been doing this a few years into owning chickens, I would have laughed. But there I was.

A few hours later and with a wet and warn out chickie and no egg, we became concerned as this was a life-threatening condition for a Hen.
One site suggested putting her in a warm, dark, quiet place and letting nature run it's course. As we had no other remedies to try, we found a box and put some towels inside and added food, water, Loretta Hen, and closed the top.

After anxiously waiting only 10 minutes, we heard a small little sound from within the box and looked inside to find Loretta sitting quietly beside her egg.

It was over. Loretta looked relaxed and I was amazed at how little time it took her to do what she needed to do, once she was in the right environment. But then again, that made perfect sense. How many times had I also forgotten what was mine to do - what had previously felt very natural. And in my confusion, I had pushed and pushed, but wasn't able to find my groove.

Looking back on those situations, when I've been able to get into nature for awhile by myself or on a retreat, finding my truth and healing seemed the easiest and most uncomplicated thing in the world to do. Loretta was a good reminder that my inner wisdom and innate natural abilities sometimes just need a supportive and relaxing environment, and a little quiet time, to unfold.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Good Vibrations

Our kitty purrs very easily - when walking up close to him, petting him, and even while being prodded at the Vet's office. I am in awe of the warm sound that comes from inside his small body and love bringing his belly up to my face, feeling as if I've been reset from his good vibrations. I wonder what it would be like if we humans had the same mechanism. Imagine walking into a coffee shop of visiting friends, and above the sounds of steaming milk and chattering voices you'd hear a warm purring hum. Just thinking about it puts a smile on my face.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cooking with onions

I originally found Yoga after 10 years of teaching fitness classes and feeling stressed and saddened by 9/11. My body was tight and felt constricted, and now understanding so much more about the mind-body connection, that explained what was going on mentally and emotionally for me, too. With Yoga, I was able to begin to feel connected to my body, let my mind relax, and feel grounded and at peace in my body and surroundings. This was and is huge for me and is probably the reason many folks take Yoga. I love seeing the relaxed faces of folks leaving class and hearing people say that whatever was bothering them when they came to class, is now gone. For that, I am eternally greatful at being able to experience and share Yoga in community.

As with all healing, there is a layering affect that occurs, like skinning an onion. Once I found that I was able to come to places of peace and feel good in my body after a Yoga class, I was ready for the next level and started experimenting more with meditation. My most profound experience was at a 10-day silent meditation retreat at which we meditated in silence, without moving, for 10 hours a day (broken up into 1 1/2 - 2 hour increments). What most people come away with there is what I am still working on as it's my next layer of healing - sitting with discomfort.

For someone who teaches a gentle form of Yoga, it may sound strange to hear me say that there are transformative benefits of sitting with discomfort. I do not mention it much in class, as I don't think it's where people need to start. But here is what I learned and am still learning in my body from this practice.

You are stronger than you think you are.

You can handle more of life's situations than you think you can handle.

There are many, many unhealthy coping strategies that we use unconsciously to numb, deaden, or distract us from feeling the knot in our stomach or the pain in our heart.

Once you allow yourself to feel strong emotions when they arise, in stillness, and let them pass through your body, you will receive amazing pieces of information about yourself and the meaning behind the intense physical reactions.

The more often that we distract or numb ourselves from being with intense emotions, the stronger they become. They need to be heard, experienced, felt, without judging or supressing.

Please do not think that this means I think you should do a Yoga pose that hurts your knees, hips, back, or any other part of your body. This experimentation of being with discomfort first requires much compassion for your body and it's ability to hold emotions that need releasing. It requires a deep and intimate knowledge of your body. And it necessitates that you learn and understand the difference between physical pain (an injury about to happen) and discomfort.

This has been the next layer of healing for me. In Yoga it is referred to 'freedom from your likes and dislikes.' Your likes and dislikes are often regulated by the effect that the particular situations have on your body (think eating ice cream - like, someone cutting you off in traffic - dislike : what are the sensations that you experience as you think of these scenarios?)

Freedom in Yoga is defined by making decisions in a state of equilibrium/balance - not influenced by short-term sensations in the body.

Though I am an idealist, I don't know that I will ever be able to reach this state. But I do find that there are plenty of times when being able to make a decision or react intentionally and consciously without trying to suppress sensations in my body feels very healthy. The most difficult part of that is reminding yourself, while you are in the middle of the emotion, to just sit and watch the sensations occuring in your body, like a third person observer. It can be pretty intense, but after doing it once, it reduces your fear and allows you to be more present and clear-headed in similar situations. To me, right now, that seems like the ultimate form of living intentionally.

Peeling an onion... it sometimes brings tears but always add more life to the meal :-)

Monday, June 29, 2009

Pass it on!

I'm in an email group of alternative health practitioners located around the country and often find out about the most up-to-date studies and information regarding mind-body health. Recently, an email went out about a federally-funded free 4-day seminar on how chronic stress affects our health. One person, an M.D., commented that she hoped that someone at the conference would mention 'the whole issue of honesty and loss of ethics and lack of compassion, because they are at the very root of the problem. It is very stressful when no one can trust anyone else and no amount of meditation, or stress management will help if they don't address those root causes.'

I was struck by the direction of her comment as I'd never really considered that before, though once I heard it stated so simply, it made complete sense. So I engaged her further.

Here's more of what she said:

'When people are looking out for only themselves and short-term gain, and will do anything or say anything to get it, the result is no one can trust anyone else. The world becomes a very insecure place in which to live. That is our current condition. It is the orgin of enormous stress for all of us. When we care for others and their long-term gains over our personal mercurial desires, then we automatically are honest and compassionate and that gives us a secure world in which to live.'

So well said and yet so hard to wrap my hands around. As someone who's interested in looking at the cause of illness and applying Yoga, meditation and a healthy lifestyle, this all of a sudden seemed to pale in comparison to living a honest, ethical and unselfish life. How can this be learned and taught?

As if I was being tapped a little harder on the shoulder, not 24 hours later a woman in my Yoga class discussed starting a spiritual women's group and said she was having a hard time getting folks in the group to engage outside of themselves and their own issues. She said it was as if folks were just so self-absorbed. She had asked one of the people in the group what they had done recently for someone else, without expecting anything in return, and that person couldn't think of anything. Ouch!

I'm certainly not preaching or judging, but since you are reading this blog, you must have an interest in Yoga and creating a more peaceful environment, so I ask you to consider ... what have you done lately for someone else, without expecting anything in return? How would you feel about asking your family, friends, neighbors and coworkers?

Honesty, compassion and unselfishness... pass it on!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Reruns

Even when you don't like doing it, practice anyway and the results will be a calmer, less reactive, more relaxed and more focused mind - so says Jon Kabat-Zinn in Full Catastrophe Living when discussing a mindfulness meditation/yoga practice.

I liken this anology to the effects that a river has on it's riverbed. The rocks (us humans), with our jagged and hard edges, over time become smooth by submitting to the continuous yet gentle flow of the water. Just as our practice smooths away our rough edges over time.

Nonetheless, I periodically find myself unmotivated. I'm not entirely sure why, after all I've been practicing yoga/meditation for over 7 years and have experienced the many wonderful benefits of a disciplined practice.

When my mind retaliates, here's what it usually looks like (Rewind, press 'Play'):

'I have so many other things to do.'
'I can do it this evening.'
'I'll do it tomorrow.'
'I don't have enough time to do it now.'
'When will I eat?'
'I'm hungry.'
'I'm tired.'
'I just ate.'
'There are too many distractions today.'

A mindfulness meditation practice teaches you that you are not our thoughts and can choose whether or not to engage each thought that arrises. Check. I get that, intellectually.

Still, the resistance can be so convincing at times.

From wherever it comes, I'm always thankful when an unassuming soft voice reminds me to practice anyway, and at that moment all the excuses are drained from my awareness. Just like that. A moment before they were so solid, but with a gentle reminder, the resistance completely disappears. I then find myself at peace with my decision to practice and a hopeful wish that the next time I encounter the resistant mind - 'may the force be with me'.

Thank you Obiwan.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Trash talk

It's garbage day today and with recycling, composting, a veggie garden, culinary herb garden (includes herbal teas), backyard chickens, and bringing our own grocery and plastic bags to the store, we had only ONE GROCERY BAG of trash for the week.

It wasn't necessarily a goal, but thankfully an unintended consequence of living more healthy by being connected to our food sources.

Today, this householder is mighty proud.

lettuce and kale

drying thyme

cooking and tea herbs

fresh eggs

compost

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Backyard Chickens

As a part of my ever-increasing desire to create an edible landscape around our home, we acquired egg-laying backyard chickens last year. Although they are the most low-maintenance pet we've owned, our foray into raising chickens has been anything but boring. There is so much to tell - some happy and some sad.

We received a feather-footed Bantam Hen (whom we named Loretta Hen) and her two young ones from some friends of ours who raise chickens. We'd heard about her long before we got her and the couple thought that these 3 would be the perfect family for our backyard hen house that Clark was building.

The hen house had been converted from a dog house that Clark had built but that the dogs had refused to use. We added some elk antlers across the doorway of the chicken house and named it the Elk Lodge for Wayward Hens. That seemed appropriate.

From the moment that we brought the 3 chickens home, our youngest dog, Roxy, a.k.a., Roxy Balboa the Lightweight Champion of the World, terrorized them. She ran back and forth in front of their coop and barked until they jumped up on top of the house. It was not a good situation.

One night we came home late on a 'high' (after being on the stage behind Obama during his acceptance speech to win N.C.'s primary) and walked into a horrific scene in our kitchen. Roxy had killed and torn apart the two young chickens that we had grown to love. Their feathers and innards were all over the house, but Loretta was nowhere to be found. We looked all over the yard and our neighbors yards as well, but no Loretta. Since it was late, we waited until morning to finish our search.

The next morning, after calling her name and looking up in the trees, we finally looked deep under the deck and she was all the way back under the far end of the deck. I slowly started calling her name and asking her to come out. Little by little she started to come out from under the deck. The sun was out and she slowly walked beside me, sat down, and let out the longest, saddest wail you've ever heard. And then lied down and closed her eyes, as if she hadn't slept all night from the fear and saddness. We were devastated.

Afterwards, Loretta would not come out of the hen house. She stopped laying eggs for 6 weeks. And we quickly knew we had to get some company for her, so we found 4 young bantams and brought them home to Loretta, who quickly became the school teacher of her classroom. In the meantime, we double-fortified the hen house with double fencing + an electric fence 4 feet from the coop with black cloth behind it so that Roxy could not get close to the chickens, much less see them. They were safe from her chicken-eating eyes.

As life turned out, we had an invitation to travel and live out West on a ranch for 3 months (which later became 6 months). Now that we had 5 chickens, we pondered leaving them with a friend locally who has a horse farm and plenty of free range chickens. We took the 4 little ones and Loretta out to the farm, but Loretta didn't get along with the other adult chickens (we think she's an Alpha), so we took her with us out West by car to the ranch. She laid an egg on the way out in our little car and cackled and the dogs barked and whined and 3 days later we were on the ranch.

The ranch had 50 acres of land for 20 free-range chickens and one bantam rooster. Loretta quickly befriended the rooster, Jose, and they were always together. They even roosted side-by-side. She seemed content with him, but didn't get along with some of the larger older chickens. And, she didn't seem to be laying eggs. Not a good sign.

Not surprisingly, while we were on the ranch Roxy killed a very large black chicken. I knew it was just a matter of time until she would kill again and I had read about someone who tied a killed chicken around their dog's neck and it cured the dog of chasing chickens. So, immediately we tied the large chicken around Roxy's neck. That might seem barbaric, but the owner of the ranch insisted as well. I was willing to try anything, so we did it.

Roxy was completely miserable. She kept stopping and trying to nudge the chicken as if to say - 'ok, get up now. Game's over.'

All the other dogs and cats gave her wierd looks, trying to figure out why she had a chicken tied around her neck, as if to say - 'you're one wierd dog'. Roxy looked embarrassed.

We already had plans to go into town and couldn't leave Roxy outside with the chicken around her neck, as there were coyotes and even wild cats right outside the perimeter of the ranch, so we tied her up in the bathroom around the toilet with the chicken around her neck (we didn't want her walking around the house dragging a chicken around).

A few hours later one of the guys visiting the ranch went to check on Roxy and felt sorry for her because she looked so pitiful and he untied the chicken from her neck and put the chicken out on the land for the coyotes to eat.

Since then, Roxy has wanted nothing to do with chickens. She doesn't avoid them, but she's not in the least bit interested in chasing them or dealing with them at all.

When we got back to Raleigh by car with Loretta, the 2 dogs and a cat we had adopted, we decided to get more chickens for Loretta as the 4 we'd left on the local farm were doing fine where they were. We got an email from a friend of a friend who had two Belgian D'anvers that they wanted to get rid of. They had been show chickens. They were like pets to their family and I took them home with a care package and instructions to feed them bananas and oatmeal for treats.

After a 24-hour period of Loretta establishing her dominance (which is not fun to see, but I guess the way chickens establish their 'pecking order'), they were the best of friends. They walk around free range in the backyard with the dogs and the cat.

It's like night and day with Roxy and chickens. Every once in awhile when one of the chickies comes over to eat her food, Roxy looks at the chickie like something isn't right here - 'aren't I supposed to be chasing you?' She looks a little confused, but then just shrugs it off and looks the other way. I'm so glad she's over that.

We're finally the big, happy, multi-breed family that I always hoped we'd be. ;-)




Friday, May 1, 2009

The Space in Between

All of life is precious - every little thing from the leaves that change to the winds that blow and the chickies in our backyard that lay eggs and then sing. All striving to live, prosper, make their mark on the Earth with what they've been given and doing what is theirs to do.

It is all such a mystery and try as I might, my head cannot wrap around the complexity of all that is happening and why.

Slowing down and appreciating is the only act of humanity I can do to express my gratitude and awe of this pure miracle. It's also the best place to go when I am completely confused and saddened by life. All of life is amazingly strong and yet completely vulnerable. Everything matters.

And so, if I can give attention to the dying and changing, I will also give equal measure to the strong, stable and resilient. This is where I have found my peace today - the space between gratitude and sadness.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

An Uncomplicated Heart

This is Mosi (pronounced moe-see), a.k.a., Mosito, Mosimo, Lion Queen of the Jungle, Crocodile (she has a funny walk), and Chakra Balancer. I have never owned a Feline, but she is the most intriguing and interesting animal that I have ever had.

She adopted us in Utah, a few minutes after we passed a bald eagle sitting on a fence 20 feet from us. Bald eagles have an amazing presence and in the Native tradition they represent spiritual power, healing, creation and feminine energy.

Eagle feathers are sacred to the Native Americans and since the eagle is protected by the U.S. Government, it is a felony for anyone to possess them who is not of Native American blood, unless given to them by a Native out of deep respect and gratitude.

My husband has two eagle feathers - one passed down to him by his father, which was given to him by a Chief of the Crow Nation. Another was given to him by a Medicine Woman, Charlie Maguire, who received it from her teacher, Grandmother Caroline, a Hopi Medicine Woman. We sometimes use the eagle feathers in sage-ing eachother, the house, or newly acquired objects to clear any bad ju-ju.

If an Eagle shows up in your life, the medicine that it brings (according to Animal Speak) is:

  • the need for creativity
  • a willingness to experience extremes in a safe environment to facilitate personal change
  • a willingness to use passions to purify and use your abilities even if it means being scorched a little
  • a willingness to seek out the true emotional aspects of oneself to rediscover the lost child and awaken a higher sense of purity, passion, creativity, healing, and spirituality.
The last reason is why Mosi adopted us.

We found Mosi, which is Navajo for Cat, in a small town crossing the road very slowly (Mosi doesn't 'do' quick). She had walked to the center line, turned around and came back into our lane. As we approached she faced us and sat down in front of our moving car. We screeched on the brakes and later concluded that she was probably saying, 'take me home or take me out of my misery!"

She was skin and bones. Snow was frozen to her paws and she had scratches on her face. When we gave her water, she drank for 40 minutes. It took her 3 days to go to the bathroom after feeding her tuna. She was ours.

I always keep a special place in my heart for animals and I think that is because, unlike humans, their hearts are uncomplicated. When I look at her I think, she is so wise, and she's probably thinking -- they have so much to learn!

Here's some of what she teaches us.

Slow down, forgive quickly, play and rest:
Mosi almost never moves quickly - except when a dog gets a little too close, then she smacks them and quickly forgets about it. Also, she occasionally is chased by an imaginary friend around the house, gets worn out and frazzled, and then takes a nap.

Get plenty of Vitamin D:
I often have to fight Mosi for the warm spots in the house on a cold day. On a lazy Saturday afternoon, she and I will both find the spots on the floor where the sun is shining and warm our stomachs.

Never judge your strength, power and presence by your size:
We often see Mosi as a Lynx or a Lion and that's probably because that's the way she sees herself. One time Clark was walking in the living room and he almost stepped on Mosi who was at his feet. She looked at him with the most perturbed expression as if to say, 'how could you have missed me doof - I'm 8 feet tall!'

Greet everyone who comes into your space:
There is not a Yoga class at our house in which Mosi doesn't come up to all the participants and give them a nod. She's even been known to run out to greet the mailman and a cyclist riding down our street.

Be respectful of others' personal space:
Before jumping up onto the bed, on the desk where I'm working, or on any space where I am, she always asks permission with a little meow and doesn't proceed until I've acknowledged her.

Thank you, Mosi.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Open Range

It occurred to me in the middle of the night that what I've been learning, practicing and doing regularly while in the equine workshops and otherwise, has been a mindfulness practice - basically being present with all that is, not judging, not trying to change it, just being with whatever emotions and sensations that arise and allowing them to just be. This was not new to me and I've worked with this on-and-off for years, but never to this extent. What was new to me was the revelation that this practice contradicted (for me) a pure pursuit of happiness, AND more importantly that I would much rather engage the world with a mindfulness practice, than with a search for joy.

In contrast to a life in pursuit of happiness, mindfulness provides a fuller, more vibrant, real and authentic way of being in the world, whereas the practice of searching for happiness tends to downgrade, ignore, repress or avoid the unpleasant. Based on my experiences within the workshops here, the soul craves authenticity and fullness of expression. And, whenever experiences are not felt and dealt with, they remain trapped within the body. This can cause health issues and, it seems, repeated similar situations until the issue and attached emotions are acknowledged and allowed to be expressed.

Being present with your pain, also allows joy to be more intense. And on the flip-side, ignoring the unpleasant can make the happy moments more flat.

It's as if when you decide to shed your layers of protection and are present with the full range of what is, your vulnerability becomes both a strength and weakness, which is very human and is all our soul asks of us.

Being mindful does not mean that one needs to stay obssessed with their pain or their joy, as when you're being mindful, you'll notice how quickly emotions and body sensations are constantly changing. Being mindful of your body's sensations and emotions (as opposed to the mind chatter) is just a more true barometer of what is going on for you.

I've thought about how the landscape here parallels this way of being in the world. The openess, big skies, vistas for 90 miles in all directions - some beautiful, breathtaking, some dangerous, and some flat - just like life and just like the views from the Buffalo Woman Ranch.