A Question of Balance

A Question of Balance

Garden

The other morning, as the heat and humidity rose, I puzzled over the best place to plant my dill, tarragon, rosemary, cilantro, marigolds and zinnias. Our garden is in a bit of disorder, with garlic still maturing to harvest, lusciously overgrown rhubarb, large tufts of catmint, peppermint, lilies, sundrops, and a couple of tomatoes.

Sweat dripped from my face as I stepped one leg over the two-foot fence guarding our plantings. In my arms were plants, a trowel, and a digger. My focus was on where I would plant everything, and I was getting tired. Looking back, I can see that this was a set up for trouble. Not paying attention as I lifted the other leg over the fence, I was thrown off balance as my pant leg caught on the fence, throwing me to one side where I nearly fell on an overgrown thyme plant.
I was lucky. I was able to recover my balance rather than falling, but it reminded me how vulnerable we become when our attention wanders.

But losing one’s balance can occur in realms beyond a physical fall. Some of you may have heard me speak of the challenges I face when travelling, especially when I am away several weeks. The physical environment is different from where I live. The food and water I consume is new. My sleep and activities change, and I often feel on sensory overload. I may have enjoyed the time away, but I feel the imbalance in different parts of my system when I return home.

It takes time and patience to return to balance. A friend told me that rebalancing when we come home from a trip takes the same number of days as we were away. From my own experience I believe it.

Many students come to yoga class and tell me they need to improve their balance, meaning physical balance. Yoga talks about a model of the human system called the pancamaya model. This model describes five aspects of the human system: the physical, the energetic, the mental, the personality, and the emotional. They are all interrelated, meaning that an imbalance in any one aspect affects the others.

My fatigue and inattention in my garden the other morning were definitely aggravated by the heat and humidity. But I also have to remember that I am still recovering my balance from three and a half weeks of travel.

I share this with you with the hope you will start observing yourself. What throws you “off balance,” what can you do to reduce the effects, and what do you need to bring you back to balance.

EXPLORING BALANCE

8 week series focusing on balance in body, breath, and mind
Discovery Yoga: Wednesdays, June 17 – August 5, 5:45 – 7:15 pm
Yoga 4 Wise Women: Fridays, June 12 – August 7, 9:00 – 10:30 am
(no class July 10)
TMC, wellness through movement, 2134 N. 2nd, Harrisburg.
For more information, contact me:
eterryyoga@gmail.com or 717-645-0067

 

OMG or OOPS

OMG or OOPS

Image for 6/8/15 Blog

Whenever I go to study at my Vedic Chant workshops I learn something new – something that will not only help me to move forward in my chanting, but something that also can help me live my life with greater focus, peace, and self-confidence.

Before our workshop ended, Sonia Nelson, our “guru” of Vedic Chant, explained how we might approach our own chanting study once we were home and on our own. She did this by focusing on how we might behave when we see we are making a mistake in our chanting practice.

The first way she called the “OMG” reaction. We hear ourselves stumbling in our chanting, and we react as if our mistake is a crisis – “oh, my god.” As Sonia explained, this reaction creates fertile ground for the antarayas or obstacles, as described in Yoga Sutra I.30-31, to grow. Thoughts of self-doubt can arise about our ability to chant or what our teacher might think. As the reaction plays out, we may feel defeated in our endeavor, the mind is disturbed, we feel anxious, and we suffer. As this unfolds, we lose any opportunity to determine how we might proceed to deal with the mistake, itself.

The second way she called the “OOPS” response. We hear a mistake in our chanting and stop with “oops, what happened here?” Then we look more closely at the mistake to see how we might deal with it. Perhaps we need to break a phrase into syllables – small chunks – to practice and correct the error. Then we can rebuild the phrase by focusing on the syllable, adding another, chanting it several times, and adding another until we can chant the entire line correctly.

What we do not do with the “OOPS” response is trigger a crisis in our bodies and minds. Instead, our minds remain clear so we can move forward rather than staying stuck.

By now you can probably see how this model can help us in our everyday lives. We free ourselves from having to anxiously try to make every endeavor “perfect,” which, of course, we never can do. Nor do we have to pillory ourselves for every mistake. Instead, we can determine calmly the best action to take.

Chapter II of the Yoga Sutra gives us the eight limbs of yoga as a path to “discernment and clear perception.” The first limb or yama prescribes five principles to guide our relationships. The first principle is ahimsa, which is considered the most important. Ahimsa is the practice of “nonhurtfulness toward others and ourselves,” according to Nicolai Bachman in The Path of the Yoga Sutras. He goes on to say, “A nonjudgmental and forgiving attitude is essential to practicing ahimsa.”

I ask you to reflect: if you wish to make ahimsa a principle you practice, how are you going to respond to your mistakes – “OMG” or “OOPS?”

Coming Home

Coming Home

Red Flower image

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.

Prerequisite to Letting Go

Prerequisite to Letting Go

04-08-15 blog image

“Understanding the transitory nature of all things is prerequisite to letting go of expectations and attachments.”
The Path of the Yoga Sutras, Nicolai Bachman

Over the past few weeks in yoga classes, I suggested that students focus on the concept of “letting go.” After all, it is spring, and spring brings up the idea of cleaning, letting go of the detritus of winter. At a more internal level, it can mean letting go of those attitudes, habits, behaviors that no longer serve us.

As students discussed that one thing that they would like to let go of, I was reminded of the difficulty of doing this. Letting go of a house filled with things accumulated over a lifetime can feel like a heavy weight when a person wants to downsize to something more modest and easier to keep up. Such a task requires not only much work, but also the giving up of objects that feel connected to family and friends. Even recognizing that the objects are just that – material things – they can come to represent that person who is now gone.

In my last blog, I wrote about the concept in yoga of parinama vada, meaning “everything changes.” This reminds us that all those material things in our world change – the seasons, the weather, a house, ourselves. Even a mountain changes over time, as will our sun.

But yoga also teaches us that there is something which is constant, unchanging. That constant within us is called purusa, which means “that which sees,” or “that which sees correctly.” Unfortunately, the ability of purusa to see correctly is, for most of us, hampered. Purusa can only see through the window of the mind. Yet, past experiences, memories, beliefs, feelings cloud this window with thoughts about what we see in the material world. This happens constantly and most often we are unaware they are obstructing our ability to see clearly.

For example, I am at the food store, and I see a woman I used to work with walking toward me. Our relationship had been difficult, and I had always felt she had been critical of my work. So now, the old feelings are triggered along with these memories. I am seeing her through a window clouded with thoughts and feelings from the past. When she greets me smiling and with a warm hug, my response is hesitant. I cannot see her as she is in the present moment because my mind is so filled with the past.

We have been given the tools of yoga so that we might be able to clean the window of the mind. When purusa can shine, allowing us to see the world clearly, we have the ability to discern the best path for ourselves. We may decide good reasons exist for keeping the house we have been living in for so long, and as a result feel more accepting of our choice.

Alternatively, we may see our best interest lies in letting go so we might have a home easier to manage. In either case, we choose with a sense of acceptance because the clarity of purusa allows us the discernment to choose wisely.

The elegance of yoga rests in the opportunities it offers us to live our lives with greater peace and freedom. It is also the promise for those willing to come to practice with faith, constancy, and a positive attitude.

Spring, the Sky…

First signs of Spring

Spring, the sky rippled with geese,
But the green comes on slowly…”
From “March 16,” in Ted Kooser’s Winter Morning Walks

We have almost arrived at the end of March, and I have been observing its fluctuating energy throughout the month. What have you noticed this month? And, not just about the weather. How has your body been feeling? What has your energy been like? How have your moods been?

It is in the nature of March to reflect both the winter we have barely left and the spring that is promised. And each season has an energy that influences each individual depending upon his or her unique system.

A friend of mine with whom I spoke on one of March’s first sunny, warm days talked about feeling a sense of excitement without knowing why. I thought it funny she expressed it that way as I had been experiencing a similar sense of excitement. It was only when she mentioned this that I began to relate it to what was going on around us.

On a warm sunny early spring day there is a feeling of potential energy. My friend described it as “pregnant energy.” I had just noticed earlier in March how daffodils in my yard had pressed through the cold, hard earth, undeterred by snowfalls. They were growing greener and taller each day. “Pregnant energy” had pushed them toward the sun with a promise of blossoms, energy expressed in their opening. That pregnant energy is an energy of anticipation, excitement, a movement toward birth, renewal, fulfillment.

But even now as the vernal equinox is behind us, we can still feel the fluctuating energy of this season. Ted Kooser expresses this best in a short poem in which he speaks of “The pond, still numb from months of ice,” and juxtaposes it to the nearby “budding maple whose every twig is strung with beads of carved cinnabar, bittersweet red.” On a chilly, overcast March day, one perhaps even offering some wintry precipitation, we may relate more to ice barely cleared on the pond, or, for us living close to the Susquehanna, to ice barely cleared in the river. On such days the excitement of spring is dampened, and we feel a heavier, denser energy of winter not ready to let go to make room for spring.

Transition is often difficult. And the transition between the pregnant potential of a promised spring and weighty, internal energy of winter can bring a sense of agitation, confusion, or maybe even a sense of just being worn down.

One of the teachings of yoga that helps me with the fluctuating days of this seasonal transition is parinama vada, translated as “everything changes.” We learn that everything in the material world is in flux. It is the nature of things to be constantly changing, including ourselves, which we see as we grow from children, to adolescents, to young adults, to middle age, and to elders.

A regular yoga practice attunes us to the changes around us and within us. We learn to live in the present moment and accept that change and transitions are inevitable.

When the moody indecision of March plagues our bodies, energy and dispositions and disappoints our desire for a more consistent diet of pleasantly warm and sun, we can remind ourselves that it will change. That is assured.

Pay Attention

Frozen Conodoguinet Creek

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
…from “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver

Thirteen degrees on our back porch as I poured sunflower seeds in a bucket to carry to and fill the bird feeders. Thirteen felt very cold, but as I walked across the front yard, I swear the sun warmed my face and penetrated the layers of clothing I wore. I like to think this was a February duel between the Arctic’s breath, not ready to recede, and the sun’s promise of the spring to come.

Standing beside the Conodoguinet, I looked upstream as I often do. Mostly frozen, the creek’s current continued to insist upon a stream of open water. But where only days earlier Canada geese had bedded down on the ice, and hooded mergansers had fished, all was still and quiet, save for a faint birdcall now and then.

Climbing the steps from the creek and crossing yard, still covered here and there with snow, I looked for the prints left by animals that had ventured out. A pair of large prints, perhaps a raccoon, led from the front of the house to under our neighbor’s porch. Clearly the community of rabbits, squirrels, birds, mice and moles, with whom we share this small plot of ground on the creek, have been busy in spite of the cold.

Several times I have run into friends over the last few weeks who, knowing I had taken February as a hiatus month, have asked, “How it was going?” I have found myself answering that it has been a month, so far, of mixed blessings. What it certainly has been is a month of paying attention. To the birds, to the weather each day, to the footprints in the snow, to cats, to the fire in the wood stove, to knitting and books, to the voices of friends and family, to the spirals of my own voice.

The poet Mary Oliver comes back again and again to this directive: “pay attention.” And, so it is with yoga, giving us the tools with which to bring attention to our practice, to ourselves, to our relationships, to our lives.

When Mary Oliver asks, “…what will you do with your one wild and precious life?,” I think my answer will be, “Pay attention.”

Understanding Who We Are

Flower

At the end of a recent Wise Women yoga class, one of the students noted that she had become completely confused with a movement in a posture she had done many times before. As she reflected a little more, she told that class she remembered that she hadn’t slept well and was finding it much harder to focus.

Rather than berating herself for not doing the posture as instructed, the student stopped and asked herself if there was a reason for her to be less focused than usual. She was aware, not just of her confusion with the posture, but also about why – less focus. And, she could relate that to having insufficient rest. Accepting, rather than judging or criticizing herself, allowed her to discover an important factor in her confusion.

Awareness and acceptance can keep us from becoming embroiled in judgment and self-criticism. Instead, they help us to have greater insight into why we may be having difficulty, so we can make change. And, by avoiding the downward emotional spiral that often accompanies self- criticism, we can feel
lighter, clearer, and calmer. This is all part of the process of self-study or svadhyaya, one of the foundational concepts of and requirements for yoga practice.

The Sanskrit word “svadhyaya” can be broken down into “sva,” meaning “self” and “adhyaya,” meaning “inquiry” or “examination.” As Desikachar explains in the Heart of Yoga, “All learning, all reflection, all contact that helps you to learn more about yourself is svadhyaya.” Regular yoga practice itself can be mirror for us to see more about ourselves. Relationships offer a huge mirror for us to see our thoughts, hear our words, and examine our actions. Another avenue is the study of texts, particularly those regarded as possessing wisdom: texts such as the Yoga Sutra, the Bible, or other works of personal significance.

Self-study offers us the opportunity to see what thought patterns, habits of speech, and behaviors may be creating problems and suffering in our lives. Once we have the awareness and acceptance of them, we have the possibility of making changes to more positive habits.

I see relationships as a real opportunity for svadhyaya. Recently I was working on a project with another person. As the time came to bring the project to closure, I found myself increasingly annoyed with the many emails and texts. I began to feel resentful of the time my project partner was demanding. And, yes, I was blaming her.

One day there was a shift in my response. I began to hear in my partner’s voice a sense of being overwhelmed, stressed, and tired. As I really listened, I felt my irritation soften. I began to see the role of my ego and attachment to a certain way of doing things. Having this awareness, I could accept that my thinking was contributing to my own annoyance and perhaps to my partner’s stress. Awareness and acceptance allowed me to open to other possibilities in our project and to work together to bring the project to a successful conclusion.

I relish the opportunities that the practice of svadhyaya brings to my life, for it gives me the possibility of moving toward my goals of being a kinder, more generous and peaceful person.