Farewell

This is just to let my friends and students know that I will be leaving New England soon and heading west where my son John has invited me into his family. It does seem that turning eighty might be a signal to retire. But I had a good run – thirty-five years teaching Yoga and meditative movement. What a blessing!

I’m happy that my retirement will now allow me time for all three daily practices of Yoga and QiGong. This wasn’t always possible while I taught morning and evening classes. So now I look forward to supper, joining the rest of the world at the dinner table instead of rushing off to classes. Still I’ll be thinking of you during my practice.

Since my keyboard travels nicely, I will work on improving my technique and, once again, commit to memory those classical pieces I’ve always loved. I will continue to write because I have to. I am compelled by my Irish genes. A love of words comes with the heritage. Writing is easy – publishing not so much.

I sincerely hope you will continue your practice, on your own or with a new teacher. Yoga truly is a Journey toward Awakening. Our awakenings enrich our lives in so many ways. I am saddened to see Yoga being reduced to just another fitness craze because the practice has so much more to offer. In this respect, Siddhartha Gautama has much to teach us. His life was a struggle and he made a lot of mistakes in his journey toward becoming the Buddha, the Enlightened One. After years of fasting and austere Yoga practices, he was close to death when finally, accepting the offering of rice porridge, he was restored for that beautiful meditation under the Boddhi tree. “All beings have the capacity for awakening”, he said as he began his teaching. He attracted many followers but that wasn’t his goal. His message was: Be your own light. I feel that, especially in our era, it is not enough to be a follower. Your time has come.

Of course I will miss you all. Carry on, be good to yourself, keep the faith and, in its truest sense:

Namasté.
Love and Peace,

Valerie

Happiness

Consider this.  The heart doesn’t need a reason to be happy.  So if you act like you’re happy, you will experience happiness.  At first this concept might seem trite, just a bit naïve.  Is it really that simple?  As it turns out, this is a fact based on good science.  Studies have shown that smiling activates muscles in the face and this triggers a kinetic memory to which the brain responds by releasing endorphins and we feel, yes, happy.

This concept is also supported by ancient philosophies.  Buddhist and Taoist meditation practices focus attention on the present moment.  Think about it.  Only this present moment is real.  The past is gone; the future is unknowable.  When we stay focused on the here and now, our perceptions are not ruled by what went before or what might take place in the future, in other words guilt or worry.  The reality of this present moment is anything we want it to be.  And so happiness is a real possibility.

And here’s a further point to consider.  Are emotions rational?  We can’t change our feelings by reasoning things out.  It just doesn’t work that way.  Happiness is an emotion.  It doesn’t require a reason.  So why over-think it?  Relax.  Smile.  Be happy.

Move It

We come into the world fascinated by movement.  An infant begins joyfully exploring how his fingers and toes move, experiments with rolling over, then crawling, eventually standing, and finally walking.  The process takes almost a year which is unimpressive compared to a newborn horse but then they have the advantage of four legs.  In that first year we discover that we were designed to move with ease, we find all these parts that are connected –  joints, tendons, bones, muscles – and we try them out, we see how they interact with parts of the brain that form intentions.  And no we’re not neuro-scientists, just gurgling  bundles of natural impulses.  The growing years bring more discoveries — running, skipping, jumping – followed by the more complicated organizational skills like riding a bike, swimming, skiing, skating.  What happens next cannot be blamed on our century or our society.  After mastering physical movement, we enter into our education phase.  We explore the mind’s capacity for learning, understanding the world around us and finding our place in it.  This comes with a price.  Whether our training requires sitting in classrooms, apprenticing at physical labor, or navigating the internet, opportunities for movement diminish.  We settle into a routine.  In our world this might mean sitting in front of a computer, working on an assembly line, or building houses, not to mention those hours spent commuting.  In former times, we might have been the village weaver, potter, baker, tailor or courier running messages from one settlement to the next.  All of these occupations require repetitive movement.  In other words, our work has the effect of limiting and eventually constraining the body.  No wonder our joints ache by the time we reach middle age.  “MOVE ME,” they shout.  Our bodies cry out for balance as they did in ancient times.  And this is why we have disciplines like Yoga and QiGong, movement that harmonizes body, mind, and breath, movement that is absolutely necessary for our well-being.  As my favorite teacher used to say, “Move it or lose it.”

The Holidays

Some people celebrate Christmas on December 25.  Others celebrate the Solstice on December 21.  For Christians, December 25 marks the birth of Christ.  For Pagans, December 21 marks the return of the sun.  The season carries a universal theme of hope.  I recall this analogy from religious education classes.  Christ brings the world out of darkness in the same way that the sun gradually begins to brighten the dark days of winter.  This concept was used by the apostles to help spread Christianity.  In their attempt to convert Pagan people, these early missionaries often adapted their message to conform to local customs.  In Pagan cultures there was already a precedent for celebrating during these short days: lighting candles and sharing meals together.  Pagans and Christians alike need a little incentive to get through the last days of waning sun.  Our Christian apostles might have added the custom of gift giving, reminiscent of the three wise men who, following the star, brought gifts to the Christ child.

The wise men weren’t in a hurry following that star and yet, during our holidays, everyone seems to be in a rush: shopping, cooking, and partying.  And this activity is in contrast with another fact I recall from religion classes.  In the Christian tradition the twelve days of Christmas begin on December 25 and end on the Feast of Epiphany when the wise men finally arrived at the manger.  Our nuns taught us that the season of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, are a time of penitence and solemnity during which we’re expected to give up all things pleasurable.  For us, the days of Advent dragged on forever as we anticipated the Christ child, the traditional lighted tree, and presents (and not necessarily in that order of importance).

Over time, I guess adults as well as kids lost patience with Advent.  Now we can barely wait until Halloween to begin our Christmas preparations.  This gives us almost two months to plan for a day which has become a Norman Rockwell myth.  I suggest the holidays, and our expectations for the holidays, have gotten a little out of hand.  Maybe we need to take control of the situation, step back, take a breath, and invite a little awareness into our holiday activities.

Most people are affected in some ways by the decreasing daylight and I doubt that frenzied activity helps to drive away feelings of depression.  Winter can be an opportunity to go within.  Think about the images of the season: a silent snowfall, barren fields asleep beneath a blanket of white.  In the hush of winter Mother nature herself seems to be enjoying a period of self reflection.  A little hibernation can be therapeutic.  By winter’s end, after making good use of earth’s time-out, we discover an awakening of the soul that accompanies the awakening of light.

Take heart.  The sun returns.

Is the World going Mad?

On two occasions recently, I overheard this question raised during conversations before class.  This was not an idle observation.  It evoked a sense of helplessness and dread.  I think we all felt this for a moment before it was time to ring the chimes and begin body and breath awareness.

We are immersed in media coverage of world events and it seems that there is no corner of the world so remote that the media has no access.  We see and hear every natural and man-made disaster. Our viewing experience can be so intense that we feel involved.  And, as citizens of planet earth, we are.  But what are we to do?  I suspect that this is now a universal concern:  Is the world going mad and what can I do about it?

This past summer, following an afternoon meditation at a Buddhist monastery, one of the participants voiced a similar concern:  “How can we, as individuals, maintain inner peace when there’s chaos and destruction in so many parts of the world?”   The teacher thought for a moment and then suggested getting involved in organizations devoted to helping refugees or aiding countries ravaged by internal conflict.  I believe the Buddhist teacher’s answer was wise up to a point.  Taking action of any kind can be satisfying.  But how do we stay centered?

As a mother I would first offer this advice: avoid large crowds and obey your survival instincts.  As a Yoga teacher, I would remind you of a slogan from the nineteen-sixties:  Be Here Now.  Setting aside its hippie implications, please look to its deeper meaning.  Be in the present moment.  Let go of the past.  Understand that the future is unknowable.  What is here, now?

Let’s start with body awareness.  Assuming you’re viewing a computer or some kind of mobile device, how is your body organized?  Where do you sense contact with your chair?  How are you arranging your legs?  Can you scan through your body gradually, starting with your feet?  When your awareness reaches your head, what do you sense about your jaw, your face?  How would it feel to loosen the jaw, to soften your face, to release any tension in your scalp?

Next, pay attention to your breathing.  Without trying to change anything, simply observe its rhythm.  Breath comes in; breath goes out.  Stay with the breath as it’s happening.  You might sense the movement of breath in some areas of your body.  Perhaps there are areas that soften as you follow the breath — softening the nose and throat, the ribcage, the abdomen.  Be with the breath.  Allow your mind to simply focus on the breath for a while.  In these brief moments, your mind can set aside thinking and open to the breath.  This practice calms and quiets your mind.  We often find that resting the mind brings us clarity, a fresh perspective, an appreciation of the here and now.  And this is all we have.  This moment.

You are a valuable human being and you have much to offer the world because you come from a place of balance and harmony and peace.  Namasté.

As in Yoga, so in Life

Yoga is not just about doing postures.  The practice of Yoga encourages us to move through life effortlessly.  But what are we to do when faced with some obstacle?  How do we deal with life’s many challenges?  Consider this example from Yoga practice.  As you are moving into a posture, Yoga teaches you not to push beyond the resistance.  Instead you might stop and observe that sense of holding back, that strong sensation.  Where in the body is that sense of holding?  What does it feel like?  How might it respond to the breath?  You stay with it for a while, breathing deeply into that space, allowing time for the resistance to ease.  Slowly the sensations change; the area of tension softens, releases.  And so you can move on, relaxing deeper into the posture.

Likewise out there in the world we often meet with resistance. . . in our jobs, in relationships with others, in various situations.  In life, as in Yoga, we learn from the resistance.  We observe that sense of holding back, of opposition or challenge.  We breathe deeply and allow it some space.  Eventually something changes. . . in ourselves, or in others, or in the situation.  And we can move on.

How does Yoga work?

Yoga addresses body, mind, and spirit.  It’s a complete system of physical, emotional, and spiritual development, the original holistic method dating back five thousand years.  The science of Yoga began to evolve as the ancients investigated the essential nature of life, how to live in balance and harmony with the universe.  From its early beginnings, Yoga offered a healthy and balanced approach, a way of life that connected body, mind, and spirit.

It’s easy to understand why Yoga has value in our world today.  Too often we tend to be ruled by our heads and the constant churning of the mind.  We get out of touch with the body and the breath.  We can feel alienated, disconnected, and stressed.  Yoga helps us to overcome this lack of awareness, to reconnect, and establish equanimity.

Yoga teaches us to become more aware of how we move. . . and not just “on the mat”.  How do you reach for something on a shelf?  How do you bend to pick up something from the floor?  Is the action strained or do you move with ease?  When you get in touch with your body and your breath, you naturally find yourself moving easier.  As the breath flows, movement flows.  This is the essence of Yoga.

Your body is your true teacher.  Let the movement come from within.  Let it flow effortlessly through your body.  If you doubt this approach, may I direct  you to the source.  In a translation of the Sutras by Rama Prasad, “effortless attitude” and a “loosening of effort through attention” are the suggested means of learning postures.  My discovery of these passages confirms my initial belief that striving to achieve has never been the intent of Yoga practice.  Strain and effort are contrary to the body’s nature.  We were designed to move easily.  Through Yoga we rediscover that sense of ease.

Breath and Relaxation

Yoga teaches us to be aware of the breath. When we’re in touch with the breath, we’re in touch with the body. We know that the breath, the body, and the mind are closely connected and we constantly observe how one affects the other. To demonstrate this for yourself, you might take a breath in through your nose and then gently sigh out the breath through your mouth. Do this again. How do you feel? As your breathing quiets down, you might observe areas of your body beginning to relax. Maybe your shoulders drop a little, your face softens a bit. As breath flows through your nose and throat, you might sense this area softening and becoming more open to the breath. Tracing the breath down into the lungs now, you can sense the lungs gently filling and emptying. And, all around the lungs, you might even feel the ribcage relaxing. The ribcage softens and you can feel the movement of breath here as a gentle expansion and contraction. Now, as you relax the area below the lungs, you sense the abdomen softening. Any tension in the abdomen is released and you’re breathing deeply into the belly.

You sense for yourself how this slow deep breathing relaxes your body. You might also observe a change in your mental attitude. When your body is relaxed, your mind quiets down. Gradually you find that you’re able to let go of anxious thoughts. It feels like breath, body, and mind are now in harmony.

Most of our thinking involves something that happened in the past or that might happen in the future. Too often we allow ourselves to be ruled by our past conditioning. We see the world only through the limited and biased perceptions of our mind. We shape our reality out of the past and lose sight of the present. But the past is over and the future is unknowable. Only the present is real. Through our Yoga practice we learn to be aware of each moment, to be fully present. As we immerse ourselves in the moment to moment experience of living, we can trust in the wisdom of the body to guide us. Take a breath and let go. Allow this moment to be tranquil and serene. Peace above, peace below, peace all around, and peace within.

Yoga and Conscious Living

The word Yoga has been translated as “union”.  The practice of Yoga is a way of integrating body, mind, and spirit, bringing it all together.  Initially we were integrated – whole and complete.  We were born with clear awareness.  Hunger, thirst, taste and touch were very real sensations arising in the moment.  We responded with howls or happy gurgles.  Life was very real.  We experienced it fully.

After a while, however, we began to notice that expressing our needs sometimes set off negative reactions from our caretakers.  No one meant for this to happen.  We simply didn’t choose enlightened beings for our parents.  But we depend on them for everything, for life itself.  So, when we notice that crying for what we want disturbs the other, our existence becomes shaky.  To compensate, some of us learn to deny these needs, to block out awareness of discomfort.  When this pattern is established early on, the disconnect only continues and, by the time we reach adulthood, we’ve become really good at denying our needs, misinterpreting the body’s signals, camouflaging our feelings to make ourselves acceptable.  We go through life always trying to please, playacting at life, and hoping for approval.  And it doesn’t work.  We still meet with disapproval.  We don’t understand how this can happen when we’ve been denying our own needs for these people!

When we encounter rejection, we can experience the emotional hurt on a visceral level, as an actual physical sensation.  Each person is affected differently.  For some, the response is a tightening of the stomach, a closing in of the chest, or clenching the jaw.    Now, not only are we not getting our needs met, not living in a way that keeps our body alive and well, but we keep adding to our pain by storing emotional trauma.   When this goes on unnoticed for any length of time, that physical reaction accumulates as chronic tension in those specific areas and can lead to health problems.

If we are fortunate, a most remarkable thing happens midway through life.  It might be called midlife crisis or simply one of those rites of passage into a new decade.  We experience dissatisfaction, the great motivator for change.  Like the Buddha, we come to know the first Noble Truth:  Life is unsatisfactory.  We feel this.  We are now in touch with life again.

Now it may be very seductive to remain stuck in that place – life is unsatisfactory, life is suffering – and use it as an excuse to do nothing, to resist change, to choose escapes such as drugs and alcohol.  But if we allow ourselves to investigate our experience we eventually discover the rest of the Noble Truths: the root of suffering is our own unawareness and we find our way out of suffering by living consciously.  For Buddhists, conscious living means applying mindfulness to every aspect of our lives.

The practice of meditation and Yoga teaches us to live mindfully.  Meditation, or mindfulness of breathing, is the highest form of self-inquiry and can be practiced as a sitting posture or as movement that synchronizes body and breath.  Yoga is actually a moving meditation.  Practicing Yoga, you learn to listen to your own body.  You tap into your own inner resources of self-healing by becoming still within the postures, sensing body and breath in harmony.

Yoga stretches and tones the body, promotes deep diaphragmatic breathing, increases circulation, revitalizes organs, stimulates glands, and extends the spine, releasing compression.  But, most importantly, Yoga frees the body and the mind.  In postures, you sustain the stretch, noting where the resistance is, breathing deeply into that space, and gradually the resistance transforms to opening and release.  You learn that it is safe to let go of tension, opening up places that had been closed in the body and in the mind, whether it’s muscle contractions or beliefs from the past that no longer serve a purpose. You begin to experience life on your own terms, now sensing your physical environment and the present moment as safe and supporting.  You have reclaimed your birthright.  You are whole and complete, an integrated being — body, mind, and spirit.