Heating with Wood

wood pile
 

About a month ago the woodman arrived a little before 8 am on Saturday and dumped two cord of wood in our driveway – the first load of two or three more cord to come. If you have no idea the size of a pile of two cord of wood, let me tell you, it is really a lot.

I was stunned when I first saw it. I knew when I saw it that I would be working with my husband to schlep wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow full of wood across our backyard and down beside our house, unloading and stacking it carefully in preparation for the cold to come months later.

My husband could not do this alone. It would be too much. Besides, we both enjoy the warmth the wood provides, as do our cats. I knew, unfortunately, what I would be doing in the July heat!

Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra describes the yoga of action, called kriya yoga. Kriya yoga has three components: tapas, a new behavior, often challenging, creating heat not just in the body but also in the mind as the change in behavior must be conscious and deliberate; svadhyaya, self-reflection, noticing the effects of our new behavior and making changes as required; isvara pranidhana, focusing on the quality of our actions rather than on the imagined result.

In all honesty, I never liked loading, schlepping, and stacking wood. In the past my mind resisted this work, usually resenting every minute of it. But here it was again requiring behavior beyond my usual activities, beyond the demands I usually place upon my body. But this year was different. I surrendered to it.

First of all, we made some agreements that acknowledged our physical limitations. We didn’t work on the woodpile every day, but we did work on it consistently over three weeks. We decided to spend 30 minutes each time doing the loading, schlepping, and stacking, and then clean up the detritus left in the driveway. We tried to avoid the hottest days, but there were a few. In the process of this work, I began to see that this was a kind of yoga practice for me, a kind of kriya yoga.

While the work required a change in my usual physical behavior, the change in my attitude toward the project also constituted my tapas. Some days I did not really want to “do wood,” but I would start, focusing on what we needed to do, and doing it. It was ok. I practiced svadhyaya in observing not only my mind but my body. I reminded my self to keep my back upright without leaning forward and to bend my knees while carting the wood in the wheelbarrow. I limited the weight of the loads. I made sure to do yoga postures to care for my back. And, I realized that I was focusing on my actions, my work, doing it to the best of my ability, and taking pleasure what each day accomplished. The bigger picture for me was being able to see how changing my attitude, recognizing and adapting to my limitations, and just focusing on the quality of my action could change my entire experience.

Some of the most profound changes for the better that we make are yoga that does not take place on the yoga mat. It is about seeing clearly enough to move away from behaviors and attitudes creating suffering and limiting our lives. It is moving what is positive. Yoga teachings and yoga, itself, are about life, and available to anyone interested in practicing and changing.

A Wonderful Gift

Cat
 

No matter what happens in the world “…faith is embedded in our heart and nobody can take it from us.”

– TKV Desikachar, “What Are We Seeking?” (165)

On May 24 my husband, Jim, and I held our dear kitty Bagheera in our arms as the veterinarian injected a drug into his vein, and he drew his last breath. I know we are not alone in having to make hard decisions that determine how the last days of a beloved animal companion will pass. But when you are actually in that position, indecision, uncertainty, fear, and grief may all surface making clear thinking impossible.

Bagheera was 18 years old. He had a mass on his bladder, diagnosed only a week or so before it led to his failing. That was among the many health issues he faced all his life. The numerous bottles of pills that sat on our kitchen counter over the years testified to that. And, in spite of the fact that I was the daily dispenser of pills, occasional liquid medications and shots – all of which he hated – he still treated me like a buddy.

He came into our lives when he was about nine months old from a PAWS rescue site. He was skinny, had a thin coat, and a nervous demeanor. But it didn’t take long until his little belly grew round and his black fur grew thick and shiny. Bagheeera loved to be petted and brushed, which of course we indulged. But he indulged me, as well, as he folded himself into a meatloaf and lay on my belly purring while I lay in bed at night. In the winter he slept on the back of the chair where I sat in front of the wood stove, his tail draped over my shoulder. I know many of you will know exactly what I mean when I say we had a very close relationship, and I loved this cat just as much as if he were human. I was not alone, as people who knew him loved his sweetness too.

When it became clear that Bagheera was not going to survive the tumor, I grieved. Mornings I didn’t want to get out of bed. My first thought was that I couldn’t deal with watching him die, with losing him. Jim and I struggled to figure out what the best choice was for him – to let him pass peacefully at home or to intervene and have him put to sleep – a euphemism that hardly speaks to what it really is. To pass peacefully at home was a wonderful thought, but what about pain?, What if his death was the furthest thing from peaceful? What path was the kindest? What was most respectful of his life? The conversation in my head flipped anxiously from my suffering and loss to Bagheera’s. I felt immobilized.

And, then I prayed. I asked for help, for guidance, for strength, to just be relieved of my self-centered concerns and to be able to be a source of comfort to this kitty who needed comfort now.

What I received was “faith.” I don’t mean faith, like religious faith, I mean what the Yoga Sutra calls sraddha. Sraddha is translated as conviction, courage, confidence. It has been described as “a deep, positive, unshakeable conviction that reveals and nourishes strength.” And, the teaching is that sraddha is present within each one of us. We just have to tap into it. For me, sraddha was the certainty that I would be able to care lovingly for Bagheera as he needed, and that Jim and I would know the kindest choice for Bagheera’s end of life.

This sraddha allowed me to hear the feedback of others. A friend who was a nurse told me that now we were dealing with “kitty hospice,” helping me to see this time was really about Bagheera and making him as comfortable as possible. The veterinarian who had been caring for Bagheera said there was nothing more that could be done, and with the mass he had, he would most likely suffer greatly.

Faith is sometimes knowing what the next right thing is to do and having the courage to do it. But it doesn’t mean there is no loss or sadness. Some days the heaviness of the air and quietness of our house can feel great.

But I ask myself, how do I want to remember Bagheera and our life together? Do I want it to be the images of his last days when he could no longer even walk, or eat, or drink? Those images grow less vivid as I work instead to see him as he was when he was well. When I do, I can almost smell the sweet smell of his fur, feel its softness, hear his loud “meow” as he carried his stuffed bear, and the exquisite joy of looking into his big green eyes. When my mind goes there, so goes my heart. He was ever faithful. Ever a blessing in my life.

First Quarter Moon, Growth

First Quarter Moon, Growth

First Quarter Moon

This week the moon arrives at the first quarter phase of her journey to fullness. I love the irony of this phase of the moon – called “first quarter” but appearing to us on earth as a “half-moon.” Since the moon is a sphere, not flat like a disc, we are privileged to see only one-quarter of its daytime side which appears to earthly inhabitants as half of the moon.

About a week ago the moon entered her “new moon” phase, which I spoke of in my last blog as symbolically a time of new beginnings. When I think of the new moon in terms of the planting cycle, I image a shoot beginning to emerge from a seed, making its way toward the light. So, too, in a time of new beginnings our own thoughts and intuitions begin to roil, gradually starting to cohere and emerging as new goals or directions or decisions.

With the first quarter moon the shoot that emerged from a seed just a week earlier, pushing through the soil toward the light, gradually unfurls a few leaves. They may be tentative at first, but grow stronger and larger as they are nourished by light, water and the nutrients of the earth. So too, we may find our own goals and decisions becoming clearer, our steps becoming firmer as they are nourished by our own faith in our direction and the support we may receive from friends, family, a counselor, or mentors.

One of the reasons I love Vedic chant is that so many involve nature. And in these chants, various elements of nature relate to aspects of the human system. For example, fire is identified as supporting speech, air supports breath, the sun support sight, water is connected to creativity, and the moon to the mind.

The Vedic chant laghunyasah is an example of a chant in which elements of nature and their positive relationship to the well-being of the human system is expressed, with a beautiful refrain threaded throughout. The effect is spiritual, almost the feeling of a prayer. A rough translation from Sanskrit of the lines in this chant that speak of the moon and the refrain follow.

May the moon support my mind.
May my mind be linked to my heart.
May my heart be linked to me.
May I be linked to that which is eternal within me.
May what is eternal within me be linked to the universal source.

If you are drawn to these images, you might use this as a mantra (mantra meaning “that which protects”). You might even recite it to yourself aloud several times, then softly, then silently. Just sit, and perhaps hold the image of the moon in your mind for a few minutes. You might even have a picture of the moon there with you.

In your own life, as you find your direction, decisions, and goals beginning to unfurl, perhaps you will find this practice focusing on the moon to be of support.

Below you can listen to these lines chanted in Sanskrit and recited in English:

~

New Moon, New Beginnings

New Moon, New Beginnings

the Moon

“You can’t really criticize the moon,” one of my Wise Women yoga students observed on the heels of our yoga practice. It was the day before the new moon at its darkest stage, a time in the moon’s cycle connected with the idea of “new beginnings.”

In the days leading up to our class, the idea of “new beginnings” had taken roost in my mind as a dear and close family member struggled to find the best path for herself and her family. When I noticed the small darkened circle in the corner of June 4 on my calendar, I made the connection – new moon, new beginnings. I did a little research on the symbolism attached to the new moon only to find the idea of “new beginnings” coming up again and again.

The new moon is a time of both darkness and a sliver of light, which, like the gentle light of winter, supports a more internal focus, encouraging reflection. We can look at old goals, some of which may have been laid aside or forgotten as other aspects of our lives required more attention.

As I started reflecting on my old goals, I became aware of a new beginning I made in my practice of vedic chant. Although I had been studying and practicing chanting since 2003, my progress had been slow and disappointing. About a year ago, that changed when I decided to work via Skype every two or three weeks with a chant teacher. My chanting practice became more regular. I felt a renewed commitment to continue, and not only saw progress, but came to enjoy the work, as well. Sometimes the new beginning simply requires a new direction to move us closer to our objective.

As we reflect, we might decide to resurrect and recommit to some old goals. Some may have already been attained. With others we may find new directions reveal themselves. Some goals might have beginning after beginning in an ebb and flow, each one leading down a path we hadn’t expected when we first began. But not all old goals may seem as desirable as we had initially thought, and those we may decide to release. .

With the darkness and sliver of light of the new moon encouraging reflection, we each might ask ourselves what it is we might want to cultivate in our lives. Courage? Compassion? Joy? Patience? Balance? Or perhaps there is something more concrete we would like to attain. A daily yoga practice? Traveling? Playing the piano? Volunteering to read to children? Finding a different job?

We need only be open and patient to what may come up in our reflections, be not afraid to plot a path toward what we hope to cultivate, and move with patience and a willingness to continue to listen to ourselves and be open to modifying our direction.

The new moon days invite us to make new beginnings.

~

Below is a poem by a favorite poet of mine, inspired by the new moon.

NEW MOON

How much it must bear on its back,
a great ball of blue shadow,
yet somehow it shines, keeps up
an appearance. For hours tonight,
I walked beneath it, learning.
I want to be better at carrying sorrow.
If my face is a mask, formed over
the shadows that fill me
may I smile on the world like the moon.

     …Ted Kooser

 

Choosing Peace, 2016

statue imageWith the bluster of loud voices swirling in the public space and spewing divisiveness, bigotry, and violence, it is no wonder anyone of us might be feeling anxiety, or even a sense of powerlessness. The news has a certain seductive quality, and our minds react with a desire to know “what is happening,” “who is saying what,” and “how ordinary people are responding.” The irony is that as we are drawn into feeding this desire to know, we are feeding our anxiety and our sense that things are out of control. I know. I have been there.

Most of us do not want to live with the whirling thoughts and energy that this type of activity generates in our systems. So how do we live in the world and still have peaceful minds
and hearts?

Patanjali, in Yoga Sutra II.33 speaks to the state of mental and emotional distress, doubt, confusion, and agitation that emerges when our bodies and minds are overloaded with troubling news and images. He tells us very simply: When harassed by doubt, cultivate the opposite mental attitude. In other words, give up immersing ourselves in what is causing our confusion, distress, and anxiety. Instead, take steps to cultivate what helps us to have a peaceful mind and heart.

To quiet the mind and body we have the 8 – limbs of yoga, which include the practices of yoga postures and breathing techniques. For me, most recently, as an antidote to the disturbing public discourse, I have focused on the ethical principle called ahimsa. Ahimsa is one of five ethical principles, called yama. The yama is the first limb of the eight-limbed path of yoga and its principles are to guide us in our all our relationships and with the world around us: non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), moderation (brahmacarya), and non-covetousness (aparigraha).

Ahimsa is considered the most important of the yama and can also be translated as “respect for life” or “abstaining from harm” and implies cultivating an attitude of benevolence and care. So what does the practice of ahimsa look like in our lives?

To start, ahimsa requires us to examine our attitudes and behaviors toward ourselves. Do we treat our bodies, minds, and emotions with an attitude of respect? We can ask ourselves if we are making compassionate choices about our exercise, our yoga practice, our diet, our rest, the TV, media, or films we expose ourselves to, even the relationships we choose to have in our lives. Do we bring harm to our bodies by running in spite of an injured knee or regularly eat fast foods? Do we practice yoga in a way that leaves us breathless or fatigued? Do we watch TV shows or movies where we are exposed to hateful messages or violence? Are we in relationships where we are not respected?

This can be our first step toward practicing an attitude of ahimsa – becoming aware of our attitudes and behaviors toward ourselves and moving away from those which are harmful and toward those which are kind, respectful, and caring. Our self-study can then focus on how we speak and behave toward others, looking at our thoughts, our speech, and our behavior in our relationships with the same kind of questions that we asked about our attitudes toward ourselves.

In the current atmosphere of dissension, intolerance and tension in our country, the practice of ahimsa gives me hope, not just for our own behavior, but also for that of others. Patanjali tells us that when a person is firmly established in living ahimsa with respect for all beings, those who have aggressive impulses or behavior are calmed in his presence.

As more of us come to consciously cultivate ahimsa, perhaps we can act as instruments of peace in the troubled times in which we live, rather than as victims of public animosity.

The Hardest Thing…

February 8th blog image

Some mornings I wake and my mind fills with thoughts of tasks to be done and situations to be worried over. Sometimes it is the details of something I am working on that won’t even come due for a month or two. Sometimes the worry comes as I imagine what may happen based upon wisps of information. All that activity as I lie in bed, my body still.

When this happens, I know I must get up and do something to change the thought patterns my mind wants to cling to. I come to my yoga practice, not to just stretch my hamstrings, but, more importantly, to reduce the agitation of my mind, for it is the activity of my mind that is causing my discomfort.

I have come to the conclusion that the hardest thing in yoga is not putting the body into a particular yoga pose, challenging as that can be. Rather, the hardest thing is calling the mind from its incessant roaming to inhabit the body – to move the mind from a state of agitation, or what is sometimes called “monkey mind,” to a place of balance.

Patanjali gave us the Yoga Sutra to help us to achieve a focused, uncluttered, peaceful mind. Even as we focus on postures, which is where most people first begin yoga, we learn that the root of the word asana – the Sanskrit word for postures – expresses the idea of being fully present in one’s body, “inhabiting, existing, living in it.” In addition, certain qualities must be brought to the posture to help us be fully present: sthira, meaning firmness, stability, as well as “attention and mental stillness;” sukha, meaning ease, comfort, relaxed, “without excessive force.”

What allows us to explore and attain these qualities in our practice of postures is the breath. Its subtle rhythm and sound alerts us when we use too much force and the breath becomes labored and rough. It also helps the mind to settle as we focus on the soft sound of the throat-sounding or ujjayi breath. In exploring the qualities of sthira and sukha in our practice, we are preparing for the deeper, more internal practices of of breath control – pranayama – and meditation.

Yoga is about change: moving the agitated or dull mind to a clear and balanced place. When we do this we have the possibility of achieving or attaining something we couldn’t do before, like being stable in a balancing pose, or kind to a neighbor who previously had irritated us, or reducing sugar in our diet, or starting a meditation practice.

I believe our work with breath practice, pranayama, can be one of the most powerful tools for creating positive change. It is also recommended that as we move through our middle years and on that we spend more time in our pranayama practice, and in our later years more time in meditation for which our breath practice prepares us.

That is why I am offering a workshop called “Breath as a Path to Change: Exploring Pranayama.” Please join me on Saturday, February 20 from 1 – 4 pm to learn about, explore and experience how pranayama can create positive change for us. You will find a flyer for this workshop by clicking on Breath as a Path to Change: Exploring Pranayama – or register by visiting www.themovementcenter.net.

Avoiding Autumn’s Adversities

Avoiding Autumn’s Adversities

2015-0921 Blog image

The Yoga Sutra (YS II.16) teaches that we should “avoid future suffering.” This means not only letting go of behaviors, attitudes or habits that cause us pain, but also looking ahead and preparing for difficulties that may arise so they can be avoided. This Sutra applies to our environment and its seasonal changes as well. They require our attention, so we can prepare and mitigate any adverse effects to come. After all, if we heard that a blizzard was coming, we would go to the store to buy our milk, eggs, and bread, and possibly batteries. We would make sure there was gas in the snowblower, we had trusty shovel, and maybe a little extra food for the birds.

I love autumn. The days may be warm, but the nights feel cool and clear. Mums, and pumpkins, and apples appear everywhere. And, we know that soon leaves will explode in dazzling reds, oranges, and yellow.

But some of the qualities of fall that we tend to overlook can cause problems. Think of the leaves we see fading. Their tips curl as they become drier and drier, even as many color magnificently. The leaves of most deciduous trees will fall to the ground, dry and crunchy as we walk in them. The air moves, as winds sweep the dried leaves, and the days begin to cool.

Ayurveda – the ancient Indian holistic medical system – tells us fall is the season when vata dosha is dominant. The word dosha means “a fault or mistake,” and vata means “to blow or move like the wind.” Vata is one of three doshas, the others being pitta and kapha, that are components of all life.

Throughout the year, each of the three doshas becomes dominant in different seasons. When vata dosha is dominant in fall, it can lead to an imbalance of that dosha within us. And, if we are in our wisdom years, we become more vulnerable to an imbalance of our vata dosha.

Some of the symptoms we might experience when vata is out of balance include: difficulty sitting still, racing thoughts. unfocused mind, difficulty sleeping, dryness of the skin, hair, or nails, constipation, forgetfulness, or anxiety. Our joints might feel creaky, as if they needed lubrication.

We may experience a vata dosha imbalance in seasons other than fall, depending upon our own constitution (the mix of the three doshas we are born with) and our diet, lifestyle, and life situation. But just to emphasize – the qualities of fall make us more vulnerable to a vata imbalance.

An ayurvedic practitioner can help us understand our own unique constitution and recommend dietary and lifestyle changes to help us achieve or maintain balance. Our yoga practice can help us mitigate the suffering that a vata inbalance can cause for our bodies, energy, mind, and emotions as we work to create a sense of groundness. We can use breathwork to calm our breath and mind; we can include a meditative practice to focus the mind. While we regularly use these tools in yoga, it is the intention of our practice that is most important. Bringing a calm, quiet, meditative intention to our yoga practice can help us maintain balance so we can welcome rather than suffer from the autumn days.

Let fall be a time to nourish yourself with your yoga and enjoy the season, and please let me know if you would like to work with me to develop your personal yoga practice for the fall.