Avoiding Future Suffering

Man with sander

Last week I watched my husband limping with back and leg pain after spending hours sanding our floors. Clearly, bending over with the sander was aggravating a pre-existing back injury. Rather than avoiding the activity creating his pain, he worked, bent over with the sander, a good part of the next day. Our floors looked great once he finished. But it took several days for the physical pain this work caused to diminish.

The suffering of day one did not make him avoid what had caused that suffering on day two. But, we all do things like that. We continue saying “yes” to projects even though we know our days are full. Somewhere in the back of the mind is a voice reminding us stress and fatigue will result, but we still add just one more thing to an already full calendar.

Patanjali,s Yoga Sutras say there are three kinds of suffering. Suffering due to change, suffering that comes from things we long for or are greatly attached to, and suffering that comes from not being able to override our patterns even when
they are harming us. Here are some examples I notice in everyday life.

Parinama – Change is constant. The seasons change from hot to warm to chilly to cold. We change as we grow from children to householders to “seniors.” Our closest friend moves across the country. A family member gets sick and dies. A beloved pet is lost. Our business grows, and then closes. Yesterday was sunny, today is cloudy. Everything changes but we may not recognize it if the transition is slow. But sometimes the change is so quick that we cannot comprehend it, let alone adjust to it. We want to hang on to what is familiar, but as the reality doesn’t allow
that, we grieve and suffer.

Tapa – Wanting what we want and keeping what gives us pleasure. Dreams of something we want to own or achieve can be pleasurable or painful. When the desire for a house, a relationship, or recognition is strong yet not achievable, we can feel frustrated, angry, sad, miserable. In another example, we may love our job and identify so strongly with our occupation that when we retire we mourn the loss of who we were rather than living a new life. In either case, desiring something we cannot have or being attached to something that changes or disappears, we
experience pain.

Samskara – Deep conditioning or imprint, habit. Have you ever seen someone with an oxygen tank who can’t resist lighting a cigarette, or someone who has had a triple by-pass salivating over a Big Mac and French fries? Certain unconscious patterns of behavior cultivated over a long period of time may result in
problems, ill-health, and suffering.

Our experiences create impressions in our mind. The more the experience is repeated or the more profound, the deeper the impression. We may not be aware that these engrained ways of seeing ourselves or the world cause us to think and act a certain way. Even with the knowledge of what will cause our suffering, the patterns are so deeply rooted that we often fail in our attempts to reduce that very suffering.

Avoid future suffering
Our goal, then, is to be able to discriminate between what is real and what is the mind’s tendency to vacillate, create desires, and identify with things that have the potential to create suffering. So, how, we might ask, shall we do this?

Prepare for the negative aspects of suffering. If there is a hurricane coming, you prepare for it. Those who ignore warnings suffer the most, unfortunately. Often our desire to do something, whether it is to sand floors or to stay in our home during a storm, overrides our awareness that we are creating more potential for suffering.

Here is where yoga practice can help. We learn as we move, breathe and meditate, where the lines are between feeling comfort and discomfort. We grow in awareness, not only of our bodies, but of our thoughts and patterns as well. With greater consciousness, our ability to discern between what is helpful and what will cause suffering grows.

We can’t control everything, especially not Nature. But, with mindfulness we can make better choices to prepare for or avoid the effects of suffering. The floors may have to be sanded, but we can hire someone. And, we can’t control Mother Nature but we can board up the house and get the kids and dog in the car and leave.

What Weeds Teach Us


I don’t know about your garden, but weeds have beset mine. The tall ones grasp the earth with such intensity that it seems impossible to uproot them, even with a shovel, which also shows you how long I have ignored them. The groundsels prickle my hands when I try to pull them. Garlic mustard, buttonweed, and thistle all seem intent on camping here for the summer, along with their other unnamed friends. Both rain and sun encourage weeds more than they do marigolds or lettuce or basil or peppers. “Why is that?”, I ask myself.

I bemoan the garden’s appearance, probably as it reflects a certain casualness in my approach to gardening. Or perhaps, it is because I have an image in my mind of the well-tended, beautiful garden I had imagined last March, and the reality falls short.

When I blame myself for the weeds in the garden, I am dispirited and my motivation sinks. The truth is, weeds in the garden are no reflection on me, or the garden, or them. Weeds are part of the gardening process. If I accept them as part of the gardening process, I bypass the self-criticism and get to work pulling them, coming that much closer to transforming my unkempt garden to a beautiful one.

It is the same with weeds in our minds. From time to time, most of us have negative thoughts popping into our heads. And, often these thoughts attack our self-worth and raise fears about our ability to deal with some aspect of our life. They can be thoughts like: “I can’t do anything right;” “My boss doesn’t like me;” “I will never get through the day;” “I don’t have time to take care of myself;” “I am too old to learn new things.” I am sure you could add a few to this list. Often we forget that we are most vulnerable to the growth of these weeds in our minds when we are doing too much, dealing with stress, resting too little, and eating poorly.

My work with my yoga teacher and my yoga practice help me to gain perspective. I come to see these thoughts and fears as being in the nature of things. With the practice of breath and movement, I relax, creating space in my body and mind. With a sense of spaciousness in me and around me, my fear lessens. I become aware how lack of rest or doing too much creates fertile soil for the weeds in my mind to grow. I gain a sense of perspective, and I can begin to accept that those thoughts are just in the nature of things. Then, the garden of my mind has room for flowers to blossom.

Frequently Asked Questions:
What Does “om” Mean?

What is "Om" blog image

This question comes up repeatedly in classes, especially when “om” is part of a mantra being chanted. Many people associate “om” with Hinduism, which can be disturbing to non-Hindus who are asked to chant “om” in a yoga class.

But there is not one simple translation for “om” or any of the other mantras in the Sanskrit language. Sanskrit, itself, has deeply ancient origins and may be the oldest language in the world. Unlike English, in which the communication of meaning is paramount, Sanskrit gives sound the highest priority. Sound carries the meaning, and meaning is in the sound. Each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet has its own energetic quality.

But what exactly is a “mantra”, you might ask. David Frawley explains in Mantra Yoga and Primal Sound, “Mantra in Sanskrit means tool ‘tra’ of the mind ‘manas.’ It is the primary tool of Yoga for calming the mind…”

Mantra has the deeper meaning of “that which protects or supports.” Often a teacher gives a student a “mantra” to help support him or her. The mantra unfolds itself to the student as it touches all parts of his or her system.

“Om” has a place in Indian mythology. As the story goes, the universe resounded with the sound and vibration of “om” at the moment of creation. Often people recognize a power in the vibrational quality of the sound as they chant it. Many experience a quieting of the mind and a calming energy when chanting “om.”

The mantra “om” comes from the sounds of “a+u+m+silence.” When chanted, the “au” or “o” has three counts, the “m” has one-half count, and then momentary silence. “Om” represents everything in creation; the silence after “om” represents that which is beyond words. Other meanings are attributed to the mantra as well. For example, “a” can represent the teacher; “u” the student; “m” their relationship. The letter “a” can stand for creation; “u” for that which sustains; “m” for dissolution. The mantra can represent the states of consciousness: “a” representing waking; “u” representing dreaming; “m,” deep sleep.

“Om” also represents a higher force. It can be the highest within you, a heart quality, love. It is a force above or beyond the mind. And, yes, when Hindus chant “Om,” it represents God.

“Om” has a mystery to it, even when we hear it without chanting ourselves. This mystery comes from the power of the vibration and sound, which is able to touch us deeply. The effect can be profound and even healing. But, let me be clear: there is no requirement in yoga to chant “om” or anything else. It is another modality to explore and to see from that exploration what might be discovered.

Benefits of Chair Yoga

Chair Yoga class

A woman I know was clearly annoyed observing a Chair Yoga class at her gym when she told me “those people need to get up and move.” Her comment made me wonder about the misconceptions people may have about a Chair Yoga class.

Participants in the Chair Yoga for Seniors class I teach range in age from late 60s to early 90s. While they can stand for some poses, some using the chair for stability, they are not getting down on the floor. But they want the benefits of improved stability, flexibility and balance in their bodies, self-awareness and clarity in their minds, and a sense of calm and balance at the level of emotions. They want to worry less and enjoy their lives more.

An understanding of yoga postures or asana can be helpful in understanding the value of what can be done in a Chair Yoga class. Yoga postures are divided into categories based upon their functions. For example, the function of bending forward in a posture is to stretch the back. The function of a back-arching pose is to stretch the front of the body; a twist twists the spine; a lateral pose stretches the sides of the body. As we work in postures in Chair Yoga, we need to achieve the function of the classical postures in a modified context.

Let’s keep this in mind: if someone 70 years old has a stiff back and legs, gently bending forward while seated will stretch the back. The function of the pose can be achieved even though the form differs from the classic form of bending forward standing, legs straight, hands on the floor. In fact, trying to achieve this form could cause injury to the person with such stiffness.

When people assume that someone should move a certain way to be doing yoga, they are missing the point. When a person using the breath in a way that supports that function and moves prana or energy. By connecting the mind and body through movement, the mind begins to focus. Awareness develops as the participants are given time to observe the effects of what they have done. Additional work is done as they sit with an assigned breathing practice to steady breath and mind.

The point I want to make is, depending upon the audience, a Chair Yoga can offer the benefits of regular yoga class. In form it may not look as demanding as the posture done classically, but it might be accomplishing the same benefit based upon condition of the person doing the posture. We have to remember that we are all different. There is no one yoga practice to fit all people at every age. But there is a yoga for everyone and every body.

Chair Yoga is a gentle, non-traditional form of Yoga that reduces strain on limbs and joints. Participants are guided in postures, breathwork, and meditation. Postures may be done in the chair and/or standing with the support of the chair. This practice promotes stability and flexibility at the level of the body, self-awareness and clarity at the level of the mind, a sense of calm and balance at the level of the emotions, and overall wellness

Chair Yoga at Susquehanna Township Recreation Building meets Thursdays from 11:00 am to noon. Please contact me at eterryyoga@gmail.com or call 717-645-0067 for more information or to sign-up.


A Symptom of Inner Peace

Peaceful Purple Sunset

“A loss of the ability to worry” is a serious symptom of inner peace, according to one writer’s reflections on inner peace I found stuffed away in a poetry folder. I smiled as I read this because I believe we all might agree that worry and inner peace do not co-exist in our bodies or minds.

Have you noticed how you are conscious of the present moment when you feel a sense of peace? Worry, on the other hand, takes you out of the present. The mind becomes occupied with what might happen in the future or the ramifications of something from the past.

My parents were great worriers, and so I grew up with worry as an unconscious habit. Focusing on the worst case scenario of a choice, behavior, or event, I would make decisions as a way of “protecting” myself from the disastrous outcomes that I imagined. The great irony of this is that I was not protecting myself, as I really did not have control over the outcome of things worrying me; rather I was creating a negative and unhealthy environment for my body, mind, and emotions.

Worry is about fear. We fear something bad will happen. Often what we dread is a loss. It might be a loss of a person, pet, reputation, success, power, possessions, health, or life. Fear engages the stress response, our body’s natural physiological response to a threat or danger. When this response is activated a flood of chemicals in our system raises blood pressure, increases respiration and heartbeat, and creates tension in our muscles, all preparing us to respond to the threat of danger we believe is immanent.

Worry, and especially chronic worry, has negative health effects, and it does not even protect us from the bad things we fear will happen. Worry keeps us from living the only life we have – this present moment.

In yogic terms, worry is avidya or lack of awareness or knowledge. We are caught in illusions that we have power over events when we don’t, or that things must never change when it is their nature to change, or that we have knowledge of what will happen in the future when we cannot know what will happen. Avidya inevitably leads to duhkha or suffering. When we worry, we suffer.

Yoga can help us with avidya and worry through practice (abhyasa) and discrimination (viveka). Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra gives us the eight limbs of yoga – ethical practices, behaviors toward ourselves, postures, breathing practices, and the inner limbs of yoga, all leading to purification of the body, mind and heart. Through diligent practice of the limbs of yoga, purification leads to greater clarity. We begin to see our ourselves and our behaviors; we see what we what we can change and what we must let go of. We have strategies in our practice to take the mind to a more peaceful place when habits of worry return. As the mind becomes clearer, we develop discrimination, the ability to see what is helpful and what is harmful and to base our decisions on that knowledge.

While banishing worry from our minds forever may not be attainable for most of us, discrimination that comes out of a consistent and sincere yoga practice can help “weaken” our tendency to worry. And, as worry diminishes, inner peace can take root and grow.


Spring Cleaning

Spring Cleaning

The wind in March sweeps away the residue of winter and prepares us for change. As the earth releases what is old, space is made for the new growth to come.

Last week I attended a class offered by my friend and Health Coach Ruth Seitz at the Cornerstone Coffeehouse. In keeping with the traditional notion of “spring cleaning,” Ruth’s class focused on “Lifestyle Practices that Cleanse the Body and Soul.”

In her presentation, Ruth discussed the many ways we might include cleansing practices in our life. For example, we may commit to drinking more water, eating organic, deep breathing, skin brushing, and including foods in the diet that are known to cleanse and purify. What especially grabbed my attention was her recommendation to “dispense with what does not serve you.” As she explained, things that don’t serve you or bring you joy dry your soul.

A metaphor I’ve heard talks of a cooking pot that is used day after day without scrubbing it clean. When we continue to use the pot without cleansing it, the dirty pot taints each new dish we prepare. When we allow things to accumulate around us, they can taint whatever new project we undertake. They impinge on our space, creating tension so our bodies and minds cannot relax. When a flower pushes through the earth only to be choked by weeds and other plants competing for space, water, and light, it cannot flourish. And, neither can we.

We can start our cleansing practice by looking at the physical space around us. Are there objects, papers, clothing, “stuff” we do not need? We can look at ourselves. Are there issues affecting our physical health that need attention? Are we doing so much that we feel anxious and exhausted from all our commitments? Are our activities keeping us from getting adequate rest or eating in a way that supports us? Are there relationships that leave us feeling depleted? Do we have habits that continue to cause us suffering?

Our practice of yoga always requires svadhyaya – self-observation. We set an intention to be observant so that we can see what we need to clean out in our lives. Then we can set the intention to let go of what no longer serves us with the knowledge that this release will give us the space to breathe and bring to life what is new. Like the cook cleaning the cooking bowl soiled with the remnants of many meals, we may require time and patience and scrubbing. But as we clean gradually and steadily, the shine will come through.

If you would like more information about the classes Ruth Seitz teaches, you can reach her at ruthhealthcoach@gmail.com or by phone at 717-238-7878.


Prana and the Snow Drop

Prana and the Snow Drop
Stabilizing and refining prana, our life force, is the centerpiece of yoga practice.

…Nicolai Bachman in The Path of the Yoga Sutras

Prana is nothing less than life itself. The steady of flow of prana is necessary to support our physical, mental and emotional health. In the course of life, blocks or obstacles may develop in our system, inhibiting the movement of prana. When that happens dis-ease and illness set in. As we approach the end of life prana becomes diminished until it can no longer support life. With the last breath, prana leaves the body.

As critical as prana is to our health and our life, what can we do to support it?

The eight limbs of yoga support prana, but the tool of yoga most connected with maintaining the flow of prana is pranayama, which means “extending life force energy” or prana. When we practice pranayama we use techniques to develop a smooth, steady breath. Because the breath and mind so intimately affect one another, the smooth steady breath calms the mind, and so the body. Pranayama has the potential to remove blocks and obstacles in our system, supporting our overall well-being.

Sometimes an image comes to me that I feel compelled to share with my yoga class because it illustrates a teaching of yoga. Last week the image was a snow drop. They are small, modest, white flowers on delicate green stalks. But they can bring joy far outsized to their height and beauty as they are usually the first flowers to appear in late winter. This year, with the snow covering much of the ground, snow drops have remained hidden.

But what can a snow drop teach us about prana?

In class we began by visualizing a snow drop as the breath deepened. We stood and began to move on inhale lifting the arms and heels, and lowering them on exhale. We paused, coming back to the image of the snow drop, visualizing the first tiny shoot emerging from the bulb beneath the earth, its life force energy pushing it upward. We moved into a posture we call “triangle twist,” connecting with the shoot’s flexibility to push around obstacles and our own spine’s need for flexibility.

In honor of the life force of the snow drop and our own, we chanted a little Sanskrit chant acknowledging prana’s power and our reverence. In meditation we visualized the snow drop, its life force energy supporting its growth and blossoming.

Each day now as the snow melts, I look in my garden just outside the backdoor for the snow drops. Waiting, I think of its life force – its prana – pushing it upward through the cold earth to emerge into the light and blossom. Grateful for the life force that supports the snow drop, that sustains me and all beings, I am nourished.

You can hear the chant we used in class, honoring prana, by clicking the arrow below.