Tuesday, March 21, 2017

ILLNESS AS TEACHER

There is a theory going around  that people have succumbed to more mental distress and physical illness this winter than is typical.  I know that's true for me.   The idea is that with the upheaval in our political situation throughout last year's presidential campaign and especially since the election, we are off balance.  So many conflicts, controversies, and policy changes are coming at us so fast and furiously, we are thrown into  a state of "fight or flight" emotionally, which impacts us physically  -- we feel the stress response.  For some of us concerned about the changes happening politically, we have been paying very close attention and doing what we can to raise our voices.  That can be empowering, for our democracy depends on the voice of the people to keep it strong, but it is also exhausting.

I've been sick more this winter than in recent memory.  I'm generally a very healthy person able to fend off the "bugs" that many people get.  Not this year.  Is it political stress?  Maybe.  But whatever it is, it frustrates me.  Apart from feeling physically awful, I get anxious about physical ailments, assuming they could lead to more serious diagnoses on one hand, or just that I am sidelined and my busy and productive life is interrupted on the other.  This week I had several fun outings and productive projects on tap and for two days I've barely left my sofa.  Bummer!

So....today I stopped fighting and just let myself sink into this situation.  As I sipped my tea and watched the birds at the feeder outside the window, I heard Karen's voice from class last week repeating the mantra of "self compassion".  "Be kind to yourself," "Be gentle in your judgements."  So I took some deep breaths, closed my eyes and surrendered to the reality of the NOW.  The reality of being exhausted, unwell, and "stuck" at home with an illness that I did not want.

Then I wondered, how is this illness serving me?

I'm slowing down.  I'm resting.  I'm taking a break from my busy schedule, from my "to do" list of projects and social life, from politics.  I don't have any energy right now to "resist".  All I can do is accept.

I cannot go to Yoga practice, but I'm practicing nonetheless.  Yoga is about letting go of thoughts (no I won't die of this); accepting the moment (I'm not feeling well; it will pass); being aware of our surroundings (so grateful for my warm cozy home, comfy sofa, a glimpse of the sun this afternoon.)  And I'm remembering:  Be compassionate with myself.  Be gentle with my judgements.

I'll be better soon and back on the mat with a renewed sense of acceptance, even of those things we don't want but must manage in every moment.  The Power of Now is the Power of Yoga.  Breathe.  Embrace.  Let it go.

Namaste,
   donnajurene

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

FIRST GRADE YOGA

I volunteer in my granddaughter's first grade classroom every Wednesday morning.  I do one-on-one time with the kids, helping with reading, learning their "sight words" (those impossible to sound out phonetically), and math.   At 6 and 7 years old, they are still innocent and fresh enough with the whole school experience, that they are eager for every activity, are happy and engaged, and think I am the best part of their day!  It's a great ego-boost to get their smiles, waves, and hugs as they enter the classroom to find me there at my "desk" -- a small table in the back of the room.

The school is in a neighborhood of culturally diverse families, many new to the United States, and none of higher socio-economic status (yet).   They live in modest homes and apartments, work hard, and are eager for their children to get a good education.  I am delighted to be there to be part of their educational experiences.  It brings back my own "PTA Mom" days when the local elementary school was my second home.

There are three Arabic-speaking children in the class who are trying to teach me simple phrases, like "good morning", "have a nice day", "hello", etc.  They laugh at my garbled attempts.  One little boy told me he can speak three languages: English, Russian, and Ukrainian.  "Ukraine is the hardest," he declared.  Overhearing this, a little girl said she speaks English and Spanish.  I am so amazed at the ease with which they shift from one language to another and the potential we have in such linguistic experts ready to grow into adults who can navigate and assist in our increasingly diverse world!

At the end of the morning in the classroom, as I prepare to leave, the kids are generally lining up for lunch in the cafeteria.  Without fail, they want me to come along with them to eat lunch then go to recess.  These past several weeks I've declined because I've been taking Elizabeth's Wednesday afternoon's "Yoga Therapy for Emotional Health" class and have to leave school to get to class on time.

A few weeks ago, as the kids stood in line begging me to come along, I said, "No, sorry; I'm going to my yoga class."  And for some reason I bowed with my hands together at my heart and said, "Namaste."  Immediately one little boy, who barely speaks English at all, suddenly smiled a huge smile, bowed to me in turn and said "Namaste!!!"  I had struck a familiar chord with him.  I was stumped that this recent arrival from Iraq was so excited about this expression, so I turned to "Google" and found that many Hindi words have Arabic origins!  I had stumbled upon a word he was delighted to hear and to repeat to me.  Now every time he sees me, we bow in "Namaste" to each other.

Last week as class ended, I heard the same invitations to come to lunch, and reminded them I was on my way to Yoga class, and this time I moved into tree pose as I talked to them.  Immediately about 6-7 kids imitated me, boys and girls alike, giggling as they stood like trees with me just before leaving for lunch.

I am amazed at how yoga can be a universal language, a way to connect, a way to find commonality across age, culture, and class.  Yoga is life.

Namaste,
    donnajurene

Monday, February 27, 2017

YOGA GOES TO PRISON

On Sunday evening I attended a benefit Yoga Class/Kirtan to benefit Yoga Behind Bars (YBB).  Have you heard of it?  I'm not talking about your friendly neighborhood brewpub -- I'm talking the scary kind of bars behind which 2.2 million Americans live every day in prisons, jails, and youth detention centers.  Living in these places traumatizes the individuals who are incarcerated there, over and over.

What do we know about yoga?  What do our teachers repeat at nearly every class?   It's not about the poses -- it's about the mind.  Yoga's entire intention is to calm the mind.  The poses help us learn to focus, to breathe, to gain strength for sitting in meditation.

You know it's true.  You may come into class feeling harried, hurried, and stressed.  Your body hurts and your mind is going a million miles an hour mulling over frustrations, future plans, hurt feelings, and past mistakes.  You just want a bit of a break and soon you are on your mat, focused, attentive, breathing deeply, moving slowly, finding a peaceful energetic with others in beautiful surroundings, soft music the background of your practice and a skilled teacher guiding and encouraging you along.

Can you imagine being locked in prison, with none of the everyday freedoms we take for granted, living always in an atmosphere of menace and danger, with no control over your destiny?  Set your judgement aside for a moment about what landed folks in that situation and acknowledge that all of those people have the same need for calm and peace that we do.  Is there a better antidote to the severe stresses of incarceration than the respite and tools Yoga can bring to a person 'on the inside'?

Yoga Behind Bars trains teachers to go inside prisons to hold classes and to teach others who live 'inside' to be teachers as well.    Here are some facts posted on the YBB website:  http://yogabehindbars.org

In addition to the physical benefits and improved overall well-being, yoga and meditation have been scientifically proven to:
  • Drastically reduce rates of recidivism, people who practice yoga and meditation behind bars are less likely to return to prison once they have finished their sentence
  • Only 8% of individuals who took 4 or more yoga classes returned to prison, compared with a national average of 60% recidivism.
  •  Reduce depression, anger, and anxiety, often a root cause of destructive behavior and drug use.
  • Be an effective adjunctive therapy during treatment for drug addiction, which is a co-factor in many of our students’ incarceration

At the benefit, we were also told of the racial healing power of this program.  Prisons are deeply segregated societies, but through YBB at one prison two men, one white and one black, are teaming to teach together and finding that this partnership is helping to break racial barriers in their prison community.

We think of prisons as places of punishment, but must remember that the compassionate goal is also for the incarcerated to change, to grow, to return to the outside with the desire to join our communities as active and productive citizens who can live and work alongside all of us.  Finding the calm presence of a yoga practice can serve a person for a lifetime, no matter their circumstances.

Look over the website and see what YBB is doing for this unseen segment of our community.  See if  you can support this dedicated organization with your time or your contributions.  We are all in this life together.

Namaste,
    donnajurene



Saturday, February 18, 2017

REST

I've been noticing that oftentimes we are given the option of resting in either Child's Pose or Downward Facing Dog.  Which do you choose?

I almost always go for Child's Pose.  I have wondered if the pose is really aptly named for a resting pose; I imagine for some it's uncomfortable to put their head on the mat (my nose sometimes feels smushed and my forehead hurts, so I turn my head.)  For some maybe their knees bark at them folded under the weight of their bodies resting on thighs.  For some arms out front overhead might cause a shoulder pinch and back behind, hands by the ankles, often makes the head even more heavily rested on the mat.

That's why we modify!!!  Find the form of the pose that is truly restful and if it's not, pick a different resting pose!

Yesterday I was watching my 2 year old granddaughter play on the floor.  She was busy with blocks and cars and dolls and stuffed animals, moving things around and jabbering away, when suddenly she flopped down into a perfect child's pose and stayed there for for about 30 restful seconds.  Her little body just folded down on itself in utter relaxation.  She hasn't yet been plagued with stiffness, injury, and fear of failure or self-judgment about doing anything 'right'.  Her pose was as natural as breathing.  Here is a link to an article about the benefits of Child's Pose:  https://www.doyouyoga.com/5-health-benefits-of-childs-pose/

I've never found Downward Facing Dog to be a resting pose (and in researching for this post, I find there is some controversy about this in the yoga teaching community as well), but I can see how holding the pose and getting comfortable in it can slow down the practice and allow deep breathing to relax the mind.  It's just that I feel a lot going on with my body in the pose -- wrists, hamstrings, shoulders, alignment...a lot to feel and track.

When I do yoga with my granddaughter,  she loves Downward Facing Dog and does it pretty darn well, except that it isn't a resting pose for her either.  She bends over and pops right back up, giggling with delight, before flopping over again with her head on the floor.  She is so amused at what her body is doing and at watching me do the same, that it's an active, playful pose. It can be the same in the studio as we are encouraged to 'wag our doggy tail" and "pant our doggy breath" in the pose.  Some may find it restful and occasionally I'll go to it for a "rest", but mostly I love that full body relaxation of Child's Pose.

I guess my point is, do what works for you.  This is what our teachers say all the time, but recently I've noticed a few students (newbies) working so hard to find a pose that they are grimacing and overstretching -- over-trying, I call it.  I think most of us want to get it 'right', but we must remember that every pose has a proper alignment but not every body can find that perfect alignment every time; especially not when we are new to the practice.


So....work and rest; work and rest, being sure your rest is the right rest for you.

Namaste,
    donnajurene