Accepting Help

2018-0920 blog image
 

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.

A Season of Change

In seasons of deep transformation, silence will be your greatest guide.”
      …Shauna Niequist in Present Over Perfect

Change of Season imageWe clearly see the physical transformation of living things around us in the fall. Deciduous trees are among the most visible of autumn’s shapeshifters. Their cloaks of green transform to yellow or orange or red or burgundys and russets. And when the trees are ready, sensing the shortening hours of light and feeling the cooler temperatures, the transfer of water to each leaf and food from the leaves ceases. The trees surrender their leaves to the earth.

We notice too a change in the air. Coolness descends in the late afternoon and lingers into the next morning. Squirrels work diligently to fill their larders for winter. The insect voices so characteristic of hot August evenings diminish. The evening is quieter here along the Conodoguinet now.

I, too, find myself thinking I am in a time of transition. Over the years I have seen how my yoga practices have helped me to open to risk and change. I tried new things: teaching a new class and workshops as well as letting go of classes; taking on the study of Vedic Chant; attending church; trying a different strategy to deal with anxiety and depression; deciding I needed to live more completely in sync with my values. For all of this, yoga and the support of my teacher have given me guidance and courage.

Now, I feel again in a place of change, hoping to be more fully present in my relationships, to deepen my learning and teaching of yoga, to work on what I can do to live in harmony with Mother Earth, and to find joy in living each day. Focusing on these priorities requires paring back some activities and maintaining more white space on my calendar. Simply, but not simple, is the need to give myself more space. Like the trees in this fall season, I have to let go of some things to nourish other things, including myself and those closest to me.

What will sustain me in this time of transformation will be my yoga practice, my communities of support, and the quiet in which I can hear the leanings of the spirit.

I wonder how many others of you are feeling the same draw to transition in your lives. If you would like to share your thoughts, please feel free to email or call me. You may find, as I did, that this is a journey that needs a community of support.

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.

Japan Reflections: Respect

6/03/17 blog image

On our recent yoga retreat to Kyoto and the village of Kurama, our group of seventeen visited many shrines and temples. With each one, our wonderful guide, Chiharu, explained not only the history and significance of each sacred place, but she also unfolded the beliefs and concepts underlying the two religions of Japan: Shintoism and Buddhism.

At one point in our travels, as we stood before a Shinto shrine on the path up the mountain to the Kurama-dera mountain temple, Chiharu said, “Religion in the West is more about believing, religion in Japan is about respecting.” She, of course, was talking about “respect” in its deepest sense, something like “reverence,” “veneration,” even “love.”

I couldn’t help but wonder what it means to live one’s life with such an attitude of deep respect.

In Japan, we observed “respect” practiced in many forms: in how people always bowed to one another and to us; in how the meals were served with great care; in how the city streets were clean and without litter; how even the trash trucks were freshly painted and their fenders shiny; in how ancestors are honored and remembered. Respect was also apparent in attitudes toward nature: a reverence toward trees, some of which exceeded a thousand years in age, toward mountains, which are worship by some as links between earthly life and deities. In the deer park in Nara, I even witnessed a young man, probably of high school age, bowing reverently to the deer who approached him, deer who are considered sacred in this city.

It appeared to me that a deeper connection to and reverence toward nature and the seasons exists in Japanese culture than here in the West. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if we held as a cultural value an attitude of reverence and caring toward the forests and waters, the mountains, the air, and wildlife. Would we not take care of, rather than polluting, the waters so they would be clean and pure; revere, rather than remove, our mountain tops, preserve, rather than destroy, forests and habitats for wildlife. I love the lines from Joy Harjo’s “Eagle Poem,” which, though she is Native American, seem to express the kind of reverence that I sensed in Kyoto.

We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the upmost care
And kindness in all things.

The concepts of “respect” and “reverence” are very much the underpinning of the teachings of yoga. What are referred to as the first two “limbs” of yoga recommend five ethical practices (yama) and five personal practices (niyama).

The five ethical practices are: non-violence, truthfulness, honesty, moderation, non-covetousness. The five personal practices are: cleanliness, contentment, a disciplined life aiming for mental and physical balance, self-study, devotion to a Higher Principle.

Each of the ethical practices implies living with respect toward all sentient beings and taking care not to cause harm, which are necessary in order to have a peaceful mind. Nicolai Bachman in his book the Path of the Yoga Sutras states: “Each yama is a guideline for behaving in a benevolent manner toward others so as to support the process of quietly turning inward and discovering our true nature (140). The respect we show through the practices of the yamas implies a respect and reverence toward ourselves since we each share the same inner light as all other beings.

Sometimes obstacles can limit our ability to live with the attitude of respect and care for ourselves that the niyamas imply. Many of us received teachings growing up that taught we should always put ourselves last to be a “good” person and that our most important goal should be serving others. I know for myself and many others with whom I have spoken that focusing on self-care or personal practices can raise feelings of guilt. Yet, if we do not take care of ourselves, how can we care for others? If we truly believe all beings, including ourselves, share a divine light, how can we ignore working to remove obstacles to our health, well-being, contentment, and peace of mind. How can we ignore caring for what is a temple for that light?

I am grateful for the guidelines for behaving and living that yoga’s yamas and niyamas provide. And, I am very grateful for the awareness raised by my time in Japan. Cultivating an attitude of respect and reverence “in all things” supports my commitment to practice the ethical and personal practices of yoga and deepens the peace and joy of living each day.

For your consideration: What might your life look like if you consciously lived with an attitude of respect and reverence in all you did each day?

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.

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:

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