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.

Autumn Notes

Path

Each year as we make the transition from the warmth and bright sun of summer to the waning light of autumn, I feel changes in my system that require changes in my yoga practice, diet, and lifestyle.

Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science of life, gives us a non-Western lens through which we might understand the effects of the seasons. We are told in the teachings of ayurveda that each person has a “birth constitution,” which consists of a unique arrangement of three different doshas or energies. The vata dosha controls body movement and is concerned with the nervous system. The kapha dosha controls body stability and lubrication and is concerned with the tissues and wastes of the body. Pitta dosha involves digestion and concerns the body’s endocrine and enzymatic systems. Our particular arrangement of these energies, along with our diet and lifestyle, affects how we respond to life and seasonal changes.

Each season also has a dominant dosha, with its own characteristics. Autumn’s dosha is vata. As vata is about the energy of movement, fall is characterized by the movement of air and wind, which has the effect of drying things. Wind, too, stirs things up. Think about the reds, yellows, oranges of autumn leaves, that eventually dry and brown and roil and rustle in an October wind.

We are affected by autumn’s energies and may be vulnerable to imbalances in our own systems. When vata is out of balance within us, we may experience creaky joints, constipation, dry eyes, hair, and nails, difficulty sleeping, nervousness, forgetfulness, and mental distractedness. If we are in a vata stage of life, mid-50s and up, we are even more vulnerable to such an imbalance, particularly in autumn.

If you find yourself feeling out of sorts with some of the symptoms of autumn’s vata dosha, you can explore some of suggestions that follow:

  • Allow your approach to yoga practice to be attentive and meditative. Keep your focus on cultivating a feeling of groundedness, staying one or two breaths in your postures.
  • Choose activities that support a calm mind and heart.
  • Include soups and stews in your diet, using vegetables and fruits from our local bountiful harvests.
  • Hydrate your body by drinking water throughout the day.
  • Add good oils to your diet, olive and sunflower, as the weather cools, and in winter some sesame or fish oil.
  • Oil your skin before you take a warm shower, using sunflower oil or sunflower mixed with sesame.

Much information exists on the subject of the ayurvedic constitution, and you also can work with an ayurvedic practitioner to learn about your birth constitution. But we all can begin by paying attention to how we are affected by the seasons, our diets, and our lifestyle choices. Then, we can adopt strategies to maintain a sense of comfort, stability, and balance.

If you would like to have me teach you a personal yoga practice you can do at home, as well as receive diet, and lifestyle recommendations to address your needs this autumn, you can reach me at 717-645-0067 or eterryyoga@gmail.com to schedule an appointment.

One Day at a Time

One Day at a Time

Swan in lake

This week I had an awakening. As a friend reflected upon the slogan “one day at a time” and how important it was in her life, I realized how much stress and anxiety – what yoga calls duhkha or “suffering” – my calendar was causing me. Of course, it was not the calendar causing this, but rather my attachment to it.

I admit to loving my monthly planner, how it lays out each day in tidy 1.5 x 1.5 inch white boxes. And this habit of keeping a calendar to look ahead over a month has served me well in the past. It allowed me to plan, to reduce uncertainties, to be prepared, to control and order events and responsibilities in my life.

But my use of the calendar to assure my life in the future would be manageable has been making it unmanageable in the present, along with my propensity to add too much to too little time. My mind constantly visited the weeks ahead, reviewing what I needed to do and how I would manage to do it.

Yoga teaches that when we are unsettled, unhappy, or disgruntled, mental or emotional afflictions called klesas usually are at fault. Lack of awareness or knowledge, avidya, is the primary klesa. When avidya keeps us from seeing clearly, then we make choices that cause us pain or unhappiness. One of avidya‘s step-children is fear. My attachment to my calendar is a way to manage my fear of being unprepared or taken off guard, as a way of providing some certainty even while knowing intellectually there is no certainty.

Yoga gives us tools to help us see ourselves clearly and to keep klesas small by helping us move away from those things causing us suffering so we can reach a place of balance and peace of mind. The Yoga Sutra suggests that when we are caught up with a mental/emotional affliction, we should look at how we can move in the opposite direction, what is called pratipaksa bhavana. For example, we may be working on a project that challenges us and makes us fear whether we can succeed. A pratipaksa bhavana might be “courage.”

If my attachment to ruminating over the events on my monthly calendar causes me anxiety, I can cultivate the opposite by focusing on “one day at a time.” I can put the monthly calendar in my desk drawer, look at it periodically, and place a calendar showing only one day on my desk. I can focus on “one day at a time” in my yoga practice.

After all, this one day is really all that any of us have. Living each day in the here and now, paying attention to each dish I wash, each person I meet, each bird I listen to, each word I speak or write means I am present in my life – the only life I have. “One day at a time,” that is the way we find joy and peace of mind.

New Year’s Reflections

Last week I received a blog in my email from Ellen Fein entitled “Re-imagining What is Possible.” First, let me say, I always read what Ellen sends out. She is a very wise, professional, and compassionate yoga teacher and healer. (You can learn more about her and her work and read her blogs at Breathe2Change.com.)

In her blog, she acknowledges the uncertainties and hostilities permeating our times and world. Given this climate, she asks herself a question that I and, I know many others, are asking themselves: “What can I do with my own energy that supports the people I care for and the world I want going forward?”

In her wisdom, Ellen reminds us that none of us can be of support and help in the lives of others when our own energy is depleted. Moreover, if we are physically, mentally, emotionally and/or spiritually drained, we have harmed ourselves.

If we are to have a peaceful heart and quiet mind, the practice of ahimsa is crucial. Ahimsa is translated as non-violence toward and non-harming of others or ourselves in all aspects of our lives. It requires a depth beyond just actions, to our words and thoughts, as well. Nicholas Bachman in his book The Path of the Yoga Sutras explains that “A nonjudgmental and forgiving attitude is essential to practicing ahimsa…” I bring up ahimsa, not just because it is considered the most important ethical principle in the Yoga Sutra, but also because it relates to the suggestions that Ellen Fein offers for herself and interested others in this new year.

Her first suggestion is self-care, which has to be the foundation for living our lives. I, like so many women, struggle with this concept. In my head, at times, I still hear “self-indulgent” when what is needed is self-care. As I grow older, I have had to face my own vulnerabilities and what living compassionately toward myself requires. At times, I can even see this as a gift of aging, as living with balance and care in life becomes more a necessity than a choice.

Ellen’s second suggestion, what she has called “inner disarmament,” is also a practice of ahimsa. “Inner disarmament” requires first that we acknowledge we all can fall victim to anger, intolerance, or hostility. We ask ourselves how often we fail to carefully listen because we are immersed in our own feelings of anger, indignation, or outrage? Inner disarmament” starts as we become aware of our responses to situations and individuals. Rather than becoming consumed by our thoughts and feelings, we observe and listen to what is really in front of us.

Her third suggestion is to “commit to action that builds community, diminishes division, and honors our interdependence with each other and the planet.” My good friend Margee Kooistra likes to remind us of a quote from Dan Berrigan: “If you want to be hopeful, you have to do hopeful things.” Any action that supports our positive connections with one another
and encourages a healthy planet cannot help but be hopeful, and also non-harming.

I would love to hear your thoughts on these suggestions, and what you are doing as we start this new year.

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.

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.