Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

Quote of the day: Buddha lives in the present moment July 30, 2012

Filed under: yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 10:16 am
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For my birthday last week, my husband gave me (among other things) a magnet with the following quote:

“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.”

– Buddha

This is exactly what I was talking about last week – that I’m a better mom, and a better overall person, when I stay in the present rather than replaying moments from the past or worrying about problems that might arise in the future. Hooray for the Buddha for saying it so well (and hooray for my husband and his prescient magnet shopping).

 

Yoga Mom: Present Moment, Wonderful Moment July 26, 2012

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 10:59 am
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Two and a half weeks in, and motherhood is pretty awesome so far, as is my gorgeous kid. I’m amazed by how enchanted I am with her – her goofy faces, her little toes, even the contents of her diapers are all endlessly fascinating. Yesterday we had a really good day together. Nothing extra-special, just us girls hanging out. She’s starting to become more aware of what’s going on around her, of what I look like from a few feet away, of what my voice sounds like when I sing to her, all of which just inspires me to interact with her more. Yesterday we sang and chatted and snuggled, and it was a really good day.

One thing that struck me is that I’m a better mom to her when I’m happy. This seems like an obvious no-brainer, but it’s the sort of thing you don’t really think about, you know? Of course there are times when I’m really tired and I just stare at her all bleary-eyed, without the energy to engage with her. Some of that is just part of the package deal of having a little baby, but part of it has been because I’m worrying about my husband having to go to work and I’m trying to take on as much of the nighttime stuff as I can so he can sleep. But when I try to do everything myself, I’m not taking care of myself, which I should do just in general and because I’m still healing. If I’m not taking care of myself, then I’m not going to be as present for her as she deserves. There have also been days when I’m preoccupied, worrying about the future, about what will happen when I have to go back to work – but when I’m worrying about the future, I’m not here in the present moment with her. Yesterday I’d had a decent amount of sleep, and for some reason I let all of the worrying go and just spent time with her. And it was a great day.

From a yogic perspective, this reminds me of the four duties of a yogi – that the yogi needs to care for herself first, in order to have enough to give to others. And it also reminds me to live in the present moment, rather than dwelling on the past or worrying over the future. And on that note, someone’s waking up, so I’m going to spend this moment with her.

 

Yoga and the Mind/Body Connection: On Being’s Interview with Matthew Sanford May 6, 2012

It’s Sunday morning, and after F and I had just woken up, he turned on the radio. I was a little annoyed at first because I’d been thinking I might go back to sleep, but we heard the most remarkable story on NPR, an interview with Matthew Sanford, a yoga teacher and writer who’s just published a memoir, Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence. In the interview, he had so much energy and joy, and everything he had to say really resonated with me. And about ten minutes into our listening, we found that Sanford is also in a wheelchair because he’s been paralyzed from the chest down since he was 13 years old.

Sanford was talking about the mind/body connection, and we missed the first part of the interview, but I think he was saying that it’s possible and good for anyone to deepen the connection between mind and body. He mentioned how, before he found yoga, he thought of himself as a disconnected torso, but now he’s totally rooted in his body, even the parts he can’t feel. His work on the mind/body connection has led him to some interesting realizations.

The interviewer read a line from Sanford’s book about how he’s never met a person who, after deepening his or her mind/body connection, didn’t become more compassionate. This was one of the things that really resonated for me, because it’s something that I’ve thought about and experienced, just not in those terms. Just a few months ago I was thinking about how I’m less able to tolerate violence in TV and movies. At the time I attributed the shift to the fact that, being immersed in yoga  study and yoga philosophy, that the concept of non-violence and being one with all beings was seeping into my consciousness, bringing my spirituality forward in a different way. Sanford would say that I’d been deepening my connection with my body – he feels that when a person is truly present and connected to the body, that person feels more connected to others as well. And it’s true, throughout my yoga teacher training I became much more aware of and connected with my body. What an interesting way of looking at it.

Sanford seems to be really good at reversing common modes of thought. The interviewer asked about how people will often say things like “My body is failing me”, particularly as they age and find their skin sagging, vision blurring, and muscles not working the same way anymore. Sanford looks at it in a completely different way. For him, the body isn’t a machine that fails and needs repair – a classic concept we use to separate our minds from our bodies. For him, the body is always working, always striving to keep you alive. The body will keep on living and healing, even through the worst injury or illness, for as long as it possibly can. From this viewpoint, the body is your partner and your friend, capable of remarkable things.

I was so inspired by what I heard that I pretty much had to get up and write a blog post right away to share this with you. Sanford is truly inspirational in so many ways, and I can’t wait to read his book. Hearing this interview also deepened my desire to work with differently abled people. As a yoga teacher, Sanford teaches able-bodied people and also adapts yoga for  those with disabilities and injuries, military veterans, everyone. And he does it from a wheelchair, or from a mat where he can’t move around. Sanford talked about the adaptive power of yoga, how yoga can be modified and adapted so that anyone can do it. It’s not about doing the “perfect” pose, it’s about doing the pose you can do and learning from it. There’s just so much power in yoga to help and to heal.

You can hear the entire interview here at On Being’s website, and learn more about Matthew Sanford and the work he’s doing.

 

Quote of the Day: Yearning for the Full Moon of Autumn May 1, 2012

Filed under: yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 2:05 pm
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Here’s a quote for today:

“Those whom summer’s heat tortures yearn for the full moon of autumn without even fearing the idea that a hundred days of their life will then have passed forever.”

– Buddha Shakyamuni, quoted in Mathieu Ricard’s Happiness, page 227

I love this quote because it’s so relatable: we all have a favorite season and a least favorite. Personally, I don’t like winter. I’m the kind of person who’s always cold, so in winter I have to wear layers and layers of clothes. My skin gets dry and itchy, especially with scratchy sweaters piled on, and I feel very uncomfortable most of the time. In winter we also get a lot less daylight, and that strongly affects my mood. I much prefer summer, when my skin can be out and about, unrestricted in the warm air, and there’s plenty of daylight to go around! But this quote reminds me to appreciate every day of my life, even in the winter; the seasons will come and go, but my life is finite, and I only have so many winters to enjoy. I don’t want to spend a whole season feeling grumpy and sad – it’s just not a good use of my time. So in winter I try to find the things that I do enjoy and appreciate: hot chocolate, freshly made soup, fuzzy socks, curling up with a blanket and a good book. I love the holidays, too, and in the region where I live, it’s not possible to get to Christmas without having some winter along the way.

On the surface, this quote is just about seasons and weather, but really it can be about anything that “tortures” you, making you yearn for something else. An illness, a job you don’t like, or a bad living situation can all represent seasons in a person’s life, difficult to get through. It can be tempting to think, Once this is over, then I’ll really be happy! Then we regain our health, find a new job, move to a new home, and something else becomes our challenge, and we defer our happiness again. This quote reminds me that the time to be happy is right now, regardless of what else may be happening. When we’re ill, there are still many joys we can appreciate even if we don’t feel well enough to do what we used to do. When we’re stuck in a crappy job, there are always plenty of things happening away from the office that fulfill us. Finding ways to enjoy where we are right now, even if it’s not ideal, will make us happier in our day-to-day lives, and when we feel more fulfilled in ourselves, we have more to give to the people around us as well. Don’t let a hundred days or even one day of your one precious life slip past you!

 

Books: Happiness, by Matthieu Ricard March 15, 2012

As a book on meditation, Mathieu Ricard’s Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill is the best of both worlds, presenting both a spiritual and a scientific perspective. Ricard left a promising career in biology and genetics to become a Buddhist monk, so he uniquely understands both perspectives and is fascinated by the scientific study of the brain and how meditation affects, on a biological level, the way we think. Happiness is at once a guide to how meditation can improve our lives and help us to become happier and a thorough description of why it works, written in language accessible to any reader.

In the first few chapters, Ricard opens the book with discussion of happiness in general: is happiness the purpose of life? What does it mean to be happy, and how do we recognize happiness when we have it? Can we actively cultivate happiness in our lives? Concluding that happiness is possible and that cultivating it is worthwhile, Ricard then considers the problem of suffering. How can we be happy when we suffer; further, how can compassionate beings be truly happy when faced with the suffering of others? Ricard tackles this question, presenting stories of those who have suffered true hardship and examining the root causes of suffering. While we cannot control the events that happen to us, we can always control our responses to those events, and here is the real key to being happy under any circumstance. Over several chapters, Ricard discusses how we can use meditation in order to overcome ego, negative thoughts, and disturbing emotions, the obstacles within ourselves that prevent us from being happy no matter what occurs.

Ricard speaks from his own and his teachers’ experience that when we can lessen the influence of the ego and negative thoughts and emotions, we feel more freedom and happiness in our lives. He then goes on to discuss happiness from the perspective of sociology, psychology, and psychiatry, citing laboratory studies of experienced meditators whose brains have been shown to function differently than ordinary people’s brains. Meditation over long periods literally changes brain chemistry, leading to great benefits in quality of life. Ricard as both a scientist and a talented writer, in these chapters and throughout the book, is able to describe a variety of scientific studies and their results in terms a layman can understand and appreciate.

In the later chapters, Ricard examines positive attributes like altruism, humility, and optimism, and describes how cultivating these attitudes can help us to be happier. He cites evidence that those who are kind, humble, and optimistic tend to be happier than those who are not. By modifying our behavior to act more altruistically in daily life, or by being aware of pessimistic thought patterns as they arise, we can begin to make progress toward increasing happiness.

In the book’s final chapters, Ricard addresses several difficult issues: appreciating versus wasting time, ethics and the dichotomy of good and evil, and how to be happy in the presence of death. Ricard’s wisdom truly shines in these chapters; his advice is inspirational, practical and uplifting. The concluding chapter rounds out the book by describing the challenges and great rewards of following a spiritual path. Ricard promises that with regular practice and dedication, we can each not only live happier lives but become kinder, wiser, and more compassionate. Developing these qualities can lead us, as it led Ricard, to a life of great meaning, freedom, and joy.

 

Hips Square to the Ocean February 7, 2012

Beach Sun SalutationPros and Cons of Practicing Yoga on the Beach

Cons:

  1. Sand gets everywhere.
  2. Passerby feel welcome to chat with you about your yoga, which can be distracting and annoying.
  3. Sand shifts under your mat as you move. After your warrior sequence, the patch of firm even sand you picked out won’t be nearly as comfortable to sit on.
  4. If the beach is breezy, you’ll have to weigh down the corners of your mat if you don’t want to spend half your practice fixing it when it blows over.
  5. You don’t need to apply sunscreen before yoga class in a studio.
  6. Sand really gets everywhere!
  7. It’s easy to get distracted by all the birds, people, shells, boats, and other items you see at the beach.

Pros:

  1. Practicing yoga outdoors can be a welcome change to enhance your practice.
  2. Your beach yoga practice can be a conversation starter with people you might otherwise never have talked to.
  3. Shifting sand underfoot can actually help to stabilize you in postures where you tend to wobble – for example, you can wiggle your feet more deeply into the sand for extra support during balance poses.
  4. The ocean breeze can refresh you and cool you off as you practice. Weighing down your mat with shells adds an element of beauty to your plain ol’ mat, and finding the shells can be a fun preparation for practice.
  5. Once you’re sunscreened up properly, sun salutations to the actual sun add meaning to your yoga practice and remind us of where this sequence of movements came from in the first place.
  6. On the beach you have plenty of room to spread out so you won’t be touching (or bumping, or smelling) your yoga partners like you might in a studio class.
  7. Although the beach brings a whole set of distractions, it can also bring new vitality to your practice. The sounds of the birds and the waves can center us and bring us back to our true selves.

(We had a wonderful vacation! Now back to your regularly scheduled blog posts, with more beach yoga photos to follow.)

 

Avoiding Injuries Through Mindfulness January 12, 2012

A lot of people have read the recent NYT article about how yoga will “wreck your body”. As a brand-new yoga teacher, I obviously disagree with a lot of what the writer says: I mean, I just spent a significant amount of time and money dedicating myself to learning about yoga, which would be kind of a waste if this guy is right. Here are my thoughts.

Of course many people have injured themselves doing yoga. It’s not difficult to do – I’ve done it myself, and so has almost anyone who’s practiced yoga with any dedication over an extended period of time. You can injure yourself hiking or dancing or playing video games or gardening, too, but that doesn’t mean that we stop hiking and dancing and gardening. These are things that feed our spirits, and so is yoga. To single out yoga as an activity that can wreck your body doesn’t make sense, because there are so many other activities that can wreck your body! We humans are equal opportunity wreckers. Accidents can happen no matter what you’re doing.

The key thing, for me, is to keep in mind what the true purpose of yoga is. According to the ancient texts, yoga is a way to get the body healthy so you can then sit in meditation. The point is not to sculpt the body or lose weight or to get a great workout, and people who approach yoga with that attitude (or, with that attitude only) may in the long run be more likely to injure themselves. The point is to be healthy: whatever healthy happens to be for your particular body. And the point of being healthy ultimately isn’t the body at all – we’re working on the body so that we can sit comfortably in meditation. A healthy body won’t be aching and complaining when you sit still for ten minutes. That’s the point we’re trying to get to: improving the body so we can focus on more important things.

Keeping your focus off the body and on the mind can actually help yoga practitioners not to injure themselves. You want to be aware of what’s going on in the body, certainly, and it’s really important to cultivate that awareness of how the body feels and the difference between work and pain. Being mindful of your body is crucial, but it doesn’t do any good to be looking in the mirror or comparing yourself to other students and forcing your body toward something you’re not capable of. And don’t think ahead to what this yoga class is doing for you; keep your mind right in the moment, on your own mat. Stay present and focused on the pose you’re doing right now.

When you take part in any activity, you do your best to be careful and to be mindful of what you’re doing. When you go hiking or ride your bike, you watch where you’re going, but if your mind wanders, your foot can slip or your bike can veer off the path. It’s the same thing in yoga. Staying present and mindful and focused on what you’re doing will help you to avoid inadvertently causing an injury.

Here are a few other responses to the article by nvnehi and anytimeyoga and Michael Taylor. I think it’s interesting to see the very different, thoughtful ways that different yogis have reacted.

 

Meditation and Emotions November 28, 2011

We spent a lot of time last month talking about how yoga can help us deal with strong emotions. Meditation is another great tool we can use to work with and through strong emotions, and we can even use those emotions to strengthen and deepen a meditation practice. Positive emotions, such as love, compassion, forgiveness, and friendship, can naturally help to put us in a state of mind conducive to meditation. After all, these are the sorts of emotions we want to use our meditation practice to cultivate! On the other hand, there are negative emotions like fear, anger, sadness, jealousy, or shame that tend to weaken the mind and distract us from meditation. However, we cans till find ways to channel these emotions into something useful.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche advises us (in The Joy of Living, pp. 168-9) that with positive emotions, we can focus on both the object of the emotion and on the emotion itself: for example, if we’re experiencing love for a child, we can picture the child in our minds and concentrate on the feeling of love. The image of the child keeps us feeling love, while the feeling of love helps us to focus on the image – the emotion and its object serve to support each other in our meditation.

With negative emotions, though, its best to place our attention only on the emotion. If a coworker makes you angry, don’t picture your coworker: it’ll just make you more angry. Instead, rest your attention on the feeling of the anger. Try to detach it from its source; forget about your coworker’s stupid face and the extra work he dumped on you and just look at the anger. Don’t analyze the emotion, don’t try to hold onto it or block it or do anything with it – just observe the anger, by itself, separate from the person/event that caused you to feel that way. Observing the emotion on its own will probably serve to shrink it down, so that the anger won’t see as big or powerful as it did before (p. 169).

Looking at the anger, fear, sadness, or anxiety this way, we begin to see it for what it is: not an all-encompassing emotion, not an insurmountable obstacle, but just a series of images, sensations, and thoughts, and we can notice how other thoughts come along and interrupt the emotion easily. (For example, imagine a thought pattern like this: ANGRYANGRYANGRY hey let me email George ANGRYANGRY what’s for dinner tonight? ANGRYANGRYANGRY…) If we’re aware of those little interruptions, we can try to look for them, finding the spaces between the moments of anger and focusing on those instead of on the anger itself. In this way, we grant our emotions less power over us.

According to Rinpoche, there’s an old proverb that goes, “Peacocks eat poison, and the poison they eat is transformed into beautiful feathers” (170). Often we can’t help eating poison – unhappy evens, frustrations, and annoyances come into our lives every day and inspire strong emotions in us. But like the peacock, we can learn to use that poison to grow, and turn it into something lovely.

 

Meditation: Minding the Gap October 28, 2011

So I’m not making a lot of progress in reading Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s The Joy of Living, because every three pages he says something amazing and I want to go write a blog post about it. Today, what inspired me is the idea of minding the gap.

In London, there’s a gap between the subway platform and the train, such that when you get on the train you have to pay attention as you step over the gap. There’s also a gap between one thought and the next thought in our minds. Most of the time, we coast right along from one thought to the next to the next, not even noticing the gap in between, just the way that a frequent subway traveler steps right onto the train without looking at her feet. But the gap is still there, and being mindful of it can help us be safer on the subway and more present in our daily lives.

Rinpoche tells us that it can be a form of meditation just to notice the gap between our thoughts. He writes,

Watching thoughts is a bit like running to catch a bus. Just as you reach the bus stop, the bus is pulling away, so you have to wait for the next bus to come. In the same way, there’s often a gap between thoughts – maybe it lasts for just a split second, but still, there’s a gap. That gap is the experience of the complete openness of natural mind. (163)

When we meditate, we can just rest our minds in conscious awareness. Thoughts will come and go – there’s no way to stop them. We just pay attention to the thoughts and notice the gaps between them, and see what it feels like in that gap. The complete openness of natural mind! Sounds nice. Rinpoche goes on to say that, when you practice paying attention to that gap, you can start to extend it, to put a little more time between one thought and the next, spending a little longer resting in your natural mind. Like any other type of meditation, recognizing and resting in the openness of our natural mind will help us develop calm, peaceful attitudes that we can carry throughout the day.

Rinpoche uses another metaphor that I like a lot: that of watching TV or a movie. He writes, “On the TV or movie screen, lots of things may be going on, but you are not actually in the movie or on the TV screen, are you? There’s a little bit of space between yourself and whatever you’re watching” (165). In the same way that movies and TV shows (and commercials!) play on our TV screens, thoughts play across our minds. We can become very wrapped up in our thoughts, just as we’d get wrapped up in a good movie, forgetting that we’re not actually part of the action. Then we hear a noise, the phone rings, or we run out of popcorn, and suddenly we’re back in the living room in the present moment, not a part of the movie after all.

Our thoughts sweep us up and carry us away in the same way that movies do, but if we’re able to take a step back from the Thought TV and come back to the present moment, acknowledging the gap between our thoughts and us, we can avoid getting all worked up. After all, movies are really fun to watch, but they can be intense, scary, and upsetting too – and it’s the same with our thoughts. Sometimes part of the fun is getting caught up in all the emotion, but our goal in meditation is to keep our minds calm and peaceful. That doesn’t mean we have to stop having thoughts and emotions, or stop enjoying the thoughts and emotions we have. We’re going to have thoughts and emotions no matter what. But if we can mind the gap between one thought and the next, between our thoughts and ourselves, we can learn to live with a little more peace and calm. It’s one more technique we can use in our meditation practice and our yoga practice.

 

Yoga and Emotions: Worry October 21, 2011

Filed under: yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 1:58 pm
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Today in our series on yoga and emotions, we’ll talk about worry. On the surface, worry seems primarily like an action, a verb – we all worry sometimes. But worry is also an emotion and a state of mind. How do you feel when you’re worried? Tense, stressed, maybe short of breath? And it’s not as if worrying is an action or task we can complete like washing dishes – when the dishes are clean, you’re done, but there never seems to be a natural time to finish worrying. It can fill our minds and consume our energy for hours or even days. And worry, unlike dishes, is all in our minds. It may not feel like it, but we have control over whether or not or how much we worry. Let’s consider some tactics to free ourselves from worry.

Much like fear, worry can be combated with faith. If we have faith that things will turn out as they’re meant to, then we don’t have to worry about them. Also, like fear and anger, worry can be soothed with breathing. Calm, deep, conscious breathing will slow us down and help us relax when we’re all worked up with worry.

When we worry, we get caught up in concerns about the future. Therefore, a good way to combat worry is to focus on the present moment. Bring your attention away from what could happen and notice what’s actually happening right now. Go for a walk and really pay attention to the air on your skin, the color of the sky, what plants are blooming on your neighbors’ yards. Cooking and gardening are good practical tasks that help us stay in the present moment because we have to pay close attention to what we’re doing right now – otherwise we’ll burn dinner or pull up the flowers!

Try a little meditation to help with worry. It may take a while to calm your mind or feel like you’re getting anywhere, but meditating is the ultimate exercise in living in the present moment. A tranquil meditating mind has no room for worry!

If you have children, go play with them. Play is a wonderful way to bring yourself into the present moment, because you can’t play well at any game if your mind is elsewhere. A physical activity like joining a sports team or taking a dance class can be helpful for worry, too: our bodies need physical activity, and getting that activity from playing soccer or tap dancing introduces some play and fun that help us to relax. Plus you’ll make connections with other people – talking with someone can certainly help to reduce worry or put it in perspective.

Trying some of these tips can help you to worry less, and may even make your days feel happier!