Accepting Help

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On August 5, my husband, Jim, drove me to the Frederickson Surgery Center to have a hole in the macula of my right eye repaired. Needless to say, if I could have found another way to fix the distorted vision in that eye, I would have chosen that. The success of this surgery required that I keep my head down, as if I were looking for ants on the floor, for 45 minutes of every hour for 5 days. That meant sleeping on my stomach with my head in a device similar to what you rest your head in when you have a massage, while resting my torso on a cushion that elevated my hips slightly and aligned my body so my head could rest in the elevated head rest.

For daytime use, we had rented a chair similar to those you see used for massage at the airport. The chair, with an attached tray, was quite clever, really, and it came with a separate mirrored device you placed on the tray so you could see the TV or someone sitting in front of you. I also listened to the book Rocketman, which I had downloaded to my phone.

Jim is a good cook, so I was fed well. He was also determined that I mind the 45 minute rule of head down, so meals were not leisurely, although never rushed.

You would think that the most difficult part of this experience would be the five long days of inactivity and disrupted sleep. However, my daughter keyed in on the biggest obstacle for me: having to allow others to take care of me. As I reflected on my daughter’s insight, I began to understand how the vulnerability that accepting help implies clashed with how I saw myself.

I have held a strong belief that I needed to be strong, in control, self-sufficient. Especially as I have aged this has become more important to me. In our culture aging does not have a positive connotation. To age is to raise the possibility and probability that if we live long enough, we will become more vulnerable and need more help to manage our lives. That is an image that I, and perhaps many others, want to deny might apply to us. “Having to be taken care of” raised that image for me. I have to admit that I placed a high value on my ability to be strong and self-sufficient, even as I noticed the changes in energy my age is already bringing.

In the Yoga Sutra, Patangali talks about five klesas or afflictions that are the source of all human suffering. Avidya is the affliction of misperceiving what is temporary and changing for what is real and enduring. Avidya underlies all the other klesas. For example: To be vulnerable, if only for five days, was a wake up call to face the reality of the vulnerability implied in aging. Not thinking that could happen to me is the avidya. Observing and reflecting on this allowed me to remember that there is a deep, unchanging spirit within me and everyone that is what is truly of value and real (vidya). The YOGA is to identify when avidya is taking hold and then return to knowing our true nature or spirit, which is unchanging and eternal.

Closely related to avidya is asmita, which is a confusion of who we are: we ‘identify our true value with things inside or outside of ourselves, all of which are subject to change.” For example: being at peace when you are healthy and strong and being totally depressed when you identify with weakness and vulnerability. My resistance (and a bit of suffering) was based on seeing myself as vulnerable and needing to be taken care of as I recovered from surgery. This identification of being less than, allowed for feelings of inadequacies, even while knowing intellectually that this body, its strength and ability to care for itself, is not eternal.

In the midst of discomfort, I was able to find some joy in gratitude. I accepted help. Jim made me meals, monitored my adherence to recovery rules, drove me wherever I needed or wanted to go, and generally looked after me. My dear friends came and read to me, talked to me, brought me goodies, made me tea, and just lightened my five days. While the idea of being cared for was an obstacle to agreeing to the surgery, I was very grateful and even relished the kind attention I received, the inquiries as to my recovery, the thoughtfulness, and the prayers. In the end, I accepted help and realized my recovery was an opportunity to be real and allow others to identify with their own generous and kind natures.

Full Moon – “Let the Water Settle…”

Full Moon

Let the water settle and you will see moon and stars mirrored in your being.”
     …Rumi

Observing the gradual waxing of the moon this month, I reflected on how this celestial body might offer timely support in our yoga practice. Everyone who knows me has heard me talk about the moon and moonlight, and about the cool, calm, nourishing, healing qualities that we might link with as we focus on the image of the moon. I love this image of the moon and the real possibilities meditating on its qualities offer as an antidote to the often overheated lives we live in the 21st century.

The association of the moon with coolness, nourishment and healing in yoga comes from its ancient roots in the Veda-s. The Veda-s, a vast collection of scriptures in the Sanskrit language, are the oldest record of the Indian culture.

One of my favorite Vedic chants is a salutation to the moon. This mantra (a word which itself means “that which protects” ), can be roughly translated: “Nectar from the full moon nourishes the healing herbs.” The beautiful images of “nourishment” and “healing” are linked to the full moon and received by the herbs, all plants, and then ultimately by us.

When we meditate in yoga, we link to an “object” that has positive qualities we would like to bring into our life. But meditation isn’t easy for most of us. What is most challenging about meditation is our mind. I love these lines from Rumi: “It is agony to be still; the spool turns when mind pulls the thread…,” and the spool is often turning at a dangerously high speed for many of us.

But we are reminded by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra that we have tools to help us quiet the rough waters of the mind. When we practice appropriate yoga poses, consciously linking movement and breath, the mind become less distracted. When we practice regulating the breath in an appropriate pranayama, the mind can settle. When we use sound in a chant, the mind can focus. By doing this, we create space in the mind so it has the possibility of linking to the chosen image or concept. We have set the stage for meditation.

What I am suggesting here is that in this season of heat, with lives overcooked by work, demands at home, social activities, and 24 hour news, focusing on the moon in meditation, with its cool, nourishing, healing, calming light, can move our bodies and minds to a deeper, quieter, more peaceful place. We might use a picture of the full moon or the moon in one of its phases, of the light of the moon, of the moonlight reflected on water, or of any other image that evokes the moon and/or moonlight. Then we continue to focus on this image, eyes closed, letting it fill our awareness.

When meditation becomes an exploration in a regular practice, without judgments and expectations, we begin to notice the effects. As we are all unique individuals, how we experience such a practice will vary from person to person. But, I think you will notice something. And, if Rumi is right in his quote beginning this blog, it will be good.

If you would like to explore yoga meditation or a meditation on the moon more intentionally, please let me know. I am planning a workshop on this topic in the fall and am available for working with you individually to develop a personal practice.

Meditation On Quiet

Meditation On Quiet

Autumn Leaves

Early this month I drove through northeastern Pennsylvania on my way to a yoga workshop. Burnt orange and gold foliage still clung to mountain ridges. Many trees that had already surrendered their leaves stood spare. “Time to let go of what is not needed,” they might have said. I couldn’t help but think of them as harbingers of the quiet time in nature: that time when trees husband their life blood, plants die down, animals shelter in and all moves deeper toward stillness. This thought was a balm for the irritation and fatigue of this season in which the noise of the media, political campaigns, conversations, billboards and signs has felt aggressive, loud, and ubiquitous.

Perhaps not everyone finds comfort in nature. But, for me it has been the best balm during this time of noise, distress, and uncertainty in our culture. Simply lying on the ground of our front yard in the sunlight by the creek steadied and comforted me. Looking up through the yellow leaves on the maple branches to a clear blue sky connected me to something beyond the immediate chatter of the world. I felt quiet.

With the support of nature as a focal point, my mind was able to move away from distraction and agitation to a feeling of inner peace and calm, which is the true goal of yoga. Moving the mind to a place of clarity and calm, according to the Yoga Sutra, is facilitated by engaging in simple movement with the breath, breathing practices, chanting and focusing on anything that has positive qualities for us. This is the heart of yoga: meditation.

My experience of having lain on the ground under the maple tree became the object of focus for my meditation. The earth and tree represent for me the positive qualities of steadiness, groundedness, nourishment, and quiet. We all have the possibility of experiencing these things in our lives.

Notice what are you doing when you are most at peace? What is your mind connected to at that moment? Where are you when the sense of peace, joy and quiet washes over you? The answers to these questions may help you find a focal point. For me it was earth and tree; for you it might be the sun, moon, your God, children or the flowers in your garden. Whatever it is, bring the image of that to your mind. Finding a picture of a tangible object representing your focal point can greatly help. As you look at that image, notice how your mind becomes absorbed in the object and its qualities. Observe how your mind changes and how these changes show up in your life.

The awareness that the mind through our effort is capable of connecting to something other than its usual chatter is the beginning of a meditation practice. As you set forth to move your mind to a place of greater clarity, you may find the peace you have been seeking. The process may be as simple as connecting to your object of focus when you think of it, or as formal as a traditional meditation practice. If we set an intention to connect with the qualities of our object of focus on a regular basis and maintain a patient, positive attitude while doing so, we will see that the benefits of meditation are always available for us.

Celebrating Autumn’s Abundance

Deer in a field

It was September 23rd, and we were driving home from Cooperstown. A disc played Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” as we followed the two-lane road weaving over hills where trees had just been kissed by touches of red.

Just a day earlier we had ridden our bikes on the trails and roads of Glimmerglass State Park. We had stopped to look out over Otsego Lake, at stretches of water really glimmering in the sunlight. The sun felt warm on our arms and faces, yet the air moved with a touch of coolness. Hardly any other people occupied the park, just a few walkers, a few in cars, and a group of men replacing the roof on the beach facility. Swimmers had disappeared.

Two deer, still sporting white spots, grazed casually, not far from the road where we rode our bikes. I stopped to take pictures, and the one closest to the road lifted her head and turned to look directly at me, ears alert. After holding her statue-like pose for what seemed like minutes, she lowered her head and went back to leisurely nibble the greens.

Over the days of our travels I reflected on abundance: the abundance of beauty around me; the abundance of the fall harvests coming in; the abundance of tomatoes I knew awaited us in our garden when we arrived home.

Fall, 2016 has had its challenges, we might all agree, but to me it still feels full of gifts: the bounty of the land, the visual beauty of the forests even as the trees prepare to husband their resources by surrendering their leaves, and the rich gifts of community and friendship.

Fall Foliage Yoga is a celebration of this abundance in our lives. We come together to practice yoga under the great maple at Loaves and Fishes Farms, serenaded by the rustling of trees and vines and plants and often by chickens, goats and other animals on the farm. Our lunch together following yoga is a celebration of fall harvest time as we come together and enjoy delicious healthful foods.

I hope you will join us on Saturday, October 22nd at Loaves and Fishes Farms, 1810 York Road, Dover, PA 17315. Yoga is 10:00 – 11:30 am, and will be held inside in the event of rain. A light lunch and great conversation follow, with the opportunity to visit and tour the farm. A free will offering will be accepted to support the work of the farm.

For more information about the farm, visit the Loaves and Fishes Farms Facebook page.

For more information about Fall Foliage Yoga or to reserve a spot, contact me, Elizabeth Terry, at eterryyoga@gmail.com or call me at 717-645-0067.

The Hardest Thing…

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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.

Breathe Smooth As Silk

Breathe Smooth As Silk

Breathe Smooth as Silk blog image

Unless we have a cold, bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia or another condition that shortens our breath or makes it uncomfortable, we usually don’t think about it. Breathing just happens. Our body goes right on taking in air, sustaining our life, just as it did from the moment we emerged from our mother’s womb.

What makes our breathing apparatus so fascinating to me is that it is both involuntary and voluntary. Our body continues to breathe even when we pay no attention. Yet, we can change our breathing patterns in quite profound ways, if we choose.

Because the experience of stress is so ubiquitous in our culture, I encourage people to pay attention to how their breath responds when they feel stressed. Inevitably they will say their breath becomes shorter and sometimes irregular while their bodies tense and anxiety rises. When a waterfall of hormones initiates the flight or fight response, all aspects of our system react.

When we come to understand the concept of prana in yoga, we can understand why we pay such a high price for a stress-filled life, and, also, how the tools of yoga help to mitigate the effects of stress.

Prana is vital, life force energy; it functions in the most subtle aspects of our systems. “Prana… is responsible for all movement in the body and directly influences our physical, mental, and emotional health,” according to Nicolai Bachman in The Path of the Yoga Sutra. It is the means by which our mind influences the body, and the body the mind. Making sure prana can move freely and smoothly so our body feels stable and relaxed and our mind is calm is one reason we do yoga.

Our breath influences prana. That is how the breath influences the state of our mind. And, as our mind influences our breath, like when we are frightened or overwhelmed, prana is affected. When our breathing becomes irregular or shortened, our life force energy is interrupted or blocked.

The fourth limb of yoga, pranayama, is the conscious control and regulation of the breath. These breathing practices can help balance, slow, and smooth the breath, which affect prana, helping to calm the mind and relax the body. They can counteract the negative impact of stress if the practice is appropriate for our body, and we perform it consistently over time.

One caveat is the strong effect that pranayama can have on the breath and nervous system. Consequently, it is important to learn pranayama from an experienced teacher.

Saturday, February 20, from 1:00 – 4:00 pm, I am offering a workshop entitled “Breath as a Path to Change: Exploring Pranayama.” If you would like to learn more about and experience pranayama, please join me for what I believe will be an engaging and enjoyable afternoon.

You can learn more about workshop by clicking here – Breath as a Path to Change: Exploring Pranayama – or register by visiting www.themovementcenter.net.

Coming Home

Coming Home

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I just got off the phone with my dear friend and fellow yoga teacher Lynne Graham. Some of you may remember Lynne from the lovely practices she taught the Yoga for Wise Women class as she was completing her teacher training.

Lynne is one of those people who continues to learn about and delve more and more deeply into the study of yoga. In our conversation, she explained she has come to see problems that arise in life as opportunities to motivate further study of yoga, knowing the philosophy and practices of yoga hold insights and healing for challenges we experience. It is a way to approach positively what might have felt like a large obstacle.

As she labored over planning for a yoga class, Lynne explained, she decided to give up her usual routine of drinking coffee, recognizing that coffee was not helping her, and perhaps making the planning process more difficult.

I understood exactly how unfocused the mind can become after having too much caffeine. Rather than connecting more deeply with the tasks at hand, my mind is on caffeine is like a fly, buzzing here and there, landing briefly, then buzzing off to alight on another thought. Even without caffeine, I have found myself, from time to time, distracted, thinking answers to my problem lie outside myself – in a book, if I find the right page, in notes if I can only find them, in a website – any place other than within me. This kind of search is usually fruitless, just another distraction, really, from focusing on what I need to do.

Breaking from her coffee routine, Lynne decided instead to do some chanting, a breathing practice, and meditation. What she found was that this new approach yielded a focus, a certainty of direction for the class she would be teaching.

Her insight – beyond the immediate planning for her class – was to realize she already had the knowledge she needed. And, the way to access that knowledge was to make space to go within. This is the intention of our yoga practice: letting go of the distractions of the mind. In doing so we can come to see ourselves more clearly. In observing ourselves with greater clarity, we come to know ourselves, which is the goal of yoga.

Our yoga practice, done over time consistently, illuminates a path leading us to look within. It is where we can find answers, as well as peace, and faith. It is a going home.

Thank you, Lynne, for this reminder.