Sunflower Mandala

Archive for the ‘Mindfulness’ Category

How to Break Out of Pandemic Prison

Find redemption on your yoga mat

 

 

When the coronavirus arrived in New York early this year, we, like Andy Dufresne in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, began a painstaking, maddening, life-changing trek, breaking through concrete-wall obstacles stained with tears. It would be over soon, some said; it was just another flu, said others. But there was seemingly no end to the pandemic prison at the tunnel’s end, only more obstacles and challenges.

Portrayed by Tim Robbins in the film version of the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne is wrongly imprisoned for murders that he did not commit. Thwarted in his attempts to clear his name and win his freedom, he forms a painstaking, years-long escape plan that starts with chipping away his concrete cell wall–piece by small piece with a black market rock hammer (“a miniature pickaxe,” Andy tells his friend and confidante “Red” Redding, played by Morgan Freeman in the film)–to make a hole just big enough to squeeze through, and culminates with a torturous crawl through a stench-filled sewer pipe.

We, like Andy, have clawed our way through a tunnel of muck. Since we were sentenced to pandemic prison, we have battled fear, isolation, job loss, and illness, armed against a faceless enemy with the flimsiest of tools: cloth masks and rubber gloves. The doors of schools, places of worship, and businesses were shuttered. Many of us have lost family members, friends, or coworkers, or experienced illness or hospitalization ourselves. (Even so, thank God Covid-19 is not as deadly as it is contagious, or we’d be facing down the dawn of an extinction event right now.)

 

“Andy had gone into that pipe. . . . Five hundred yards. The length of five football fields. Just shy of half a mile. He crawled that distance, maybe with one of those small pen lights in his hand, maybe with nothing but a couple of books of matches. He crawled through foulness that I either can’t imagine or don’t want to imagine.”

                                                          -from Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemptionby Stephen King

 

Now, more than five months after the statewide New York lockdown was initiated, here we stand. Slowly, painstakingly, we are reclaiming our lives. We work if we can, shop when we need to, and worship via Zoom. Students took winter, spring, and now summer classes on line. And the American heroes—our healthcare workers, essential workers, and first responders—continue to support us and save lives. 

More possibilities are available now than back in March. With precautions in place, we can go to restaurants and hair salons. As of this writing (in mid-August), many students are expected to return to school classrooms in September, and churches will hold in-person services–again, with precautions in place. But it’s definitely not the life we had before, and may not be for a long time.

Meanwhile, we yogis continue to do what yogis do best. Stand strong, on our mats, in Tadasana (mountain pose). Rise up and balance in Vrksasana (tree pose). Take the graceful form of warriors in the Virabhadrasana poses, strengthening muscle and bone while cultivating inner peace. And ending our yoga practices in Savasana, or deep relaxation, to help reprogram our nervous system to a soothing setting.

In winter and spring, we practiced on our own in cramped bedrooms, watched yoga videos on line, and took classes via online platforms like Zoom. And because we New Yorkers played nice and wore our masks, we can now enjoy outdoor yoga in the warm summer sun—through our local yoga studio  (with proper social distancing, of course) or privately on our patios or decks, if we’re lucky enough to have them. I wouldn’t say so far, so good; more like so far, good enough–for now.

 

“. . . . Andy Dufresne who had waded in shit and came out clean on the other side, Andy Dufresne, headed for the Pacific.”

-from Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King

                                                                                                             

Yogis may look gentle on the outside, but our hearts, bodies, and voices are strong. We are hammering away at the pandemic prison walls, and we’re not going quietly. “We are here!” I reminded my students in a recent Tuesday evening Zoom class. We’ve survived six sad, hard months of pandemic pressure, knowing that more challenging and probably stinky months lie ahead. 

We are here! We are here! We are here! Shout it loud and proud to whoever is listening, including the skeptics and pearl clutchers, as the wee Whos did in Dr. Seuss’s classic tale Horton Hears a Who! Most of all, shout it to yourself. Be proud of your determination, resilience, and strength, even on the days when you feel like crap. It’s normal to feel sad, scared, anxious, or depressed during life-changing, stressful times. But please don’t lock yourself in a mental pandemic prison of isolation and negativity. (I am not unfamiliar with this kind of cage; I have battled depression for most of my life.)

  • Take care of your emotional health and your body
  • Stay in touch with those you love and trust
  • Get outside for fresh air; if you can’t poke your head out of a window
  • Eat well and get some exercise
  • Make time for a good night’s sleep
  • Listen to and focus on the sounds of summer–bird songs and peeps, cricket chirps, and cicada crackles– especially if you need to spend most of your time indoors
  • Consider lessening or avoiding alcohol consumption at this time
  • Get in touch with a trusted healthcare provider if symptoms like anxiety and depression persist

Remember, yogis don’t build prison walls; like Andy Dufresne at the fictional Shawshank State Prison, we forge a pathway to lead us out of our cage, to freedom.

Thursday, August 13th, 2020

Alive on Arrival

 

When does yoga class truly begin?

Eleven am, Sunday morning at Yoga Haven in Scarsdale. That’s the start time for my Restorative yoga class, which I have been teaching at the studio for over a decade. The photos shown were taken minutes before class began, with me standing at the back of the room to get a sweeping view of the peaceful, pre-class atmosphere. Most of the students are reclining on their mats, creating comfort in various ways with props, such as a blanket or two beneath the head or a bolster under the knees. (In a Restorative yoga practice, we use blankets, blocks, and bolsters to support our poses.)

Some students have bent their knees to give more support to their low backs. One student sits cross-legged in a variation of Sukhasasa (Easy pose); another is stretching her legs to the sky, a no-frills (and no-wall!) version of the Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall) inversion pose. Another student (in the photo below), still gathering props, reaches for a bolster.

Students stretching, students in stillness. Before a yoga class begins, you’ll see this and much more. When students arrive at a studio (or wherever class is held), some speed into the classroom to get their favorite spot and dive onto their mats. Others linger outside the room to chat with yoga buddies or check and turn off cell phones. In the room, you’ll see students in various stages of preparation, individualized and familiar routines that range from resting quietly to warm-up movements and asana.

Students stretching, students in stillness . . . 

Because yoga offers a strong community atmosphere, some students use pre-class time to visit with the yogi on the next-door mat. (On the down side, this can interfere with the quiet time that many students yearn, so leaving the chat outside the classroom is usually best!) I’ve seen students reading on the mat before class; others fall asleep.

Yoga classes begin at a specific time, but when does your practice begin? This is a question I sometimes ask my students. Did your practice begin when you walked into the studio, after you unrolled your mat, or when you placed your belongings and props just so? After a Down Dog or two, or some catting and cowing?  When you closed your eyes? Or did the practice begin much earlier—well before your arrival time at the studio—at the moment when you decided to take the class in the first place? Did that commitment, that yogic spark, begin your practice? 

Did your practice begin when you walked into the studio, after you unrolled your mat, or when you placed your belongings and props . . . ?

Your yoga practice is much more than the 75 minutes or so spent with your teacher. Next time you go to yoga, remain mindful even before class begins: stay alive on arrival, and notice and savor your pre-class routines and rituals. Consider switching them up: if you typically bound to your mat, try taking it slowly. If you prefer to mat-sleep, perhaps try to do so some pranayama or simple stretches first. Or stick to your familiar routine. There are no bad choices!

Likewise, after class ends, know your practice continues, alive and well. As I often remind my students, continue to explore the qualities you cultivated in class after you leave the studio. The classroom door closes, but your yoga practice is never ending. Namaste.

Monday, August 20th, 2018

Sunshower Power!

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Was it raindrops that I felt against my skin? This morning, walking to my car after teaching my seniors yoga class at Sinai Free Synagogue in Mt. Vernon, I felt a few wet drops tap my arm. With the sunshine burning bright overhead, my first thought (typical New Yorker) was that I had been christened by a bird. But, no, as more refreshingly cool drops dotted my skin, I knew it was a sun shower (or, more accurately in this case, a sun sprinkle).

A long-ago favorite refrain singsonged in my head: “Sunshower just the sign of the power, of loving you, oh baby!” (An old classic 70s disco tune from the innovative Bronx-born group Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band.) On the drive home, with crystal drops dotting my windshield, I sang the tune (“Ooh, my whole life through, I’ve been walking in the rain; until that day, I chanced on you. And the sun came pouring down too …”), filling in forgotten lyrics with hums. There’s something a bit magical, and musical, about the contrast of a sunny sky and light cool touches of raindrops.

Our yoga practice offers magical contrasts of its own: stretching long and firming taut; expanding and condensing; steady, strong effort and deep-down delicious relaxation. All companion opposites, joining together in a beautiful and powerful dance. 

When I pulled into my driveway, the rain still dotted my windshield and the sun still shone. Then, as magically as the sunshower began, it ceased. I hope that you find some magic today in your yoga practice and beyond, whether you are walking in the rain, in sunshine, or both. 

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

Rainy Days and Glorious Grays

 

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Rainy days can be dreary and make us feel weary, but I often find solace in the muted gray calm and the rhythmic sound of raindrops tap dancing on windows. A lazy rolling rumble of thunder in the distance only adds another tune to nature’s soundtrack of serenity.

For the earth and its habitants, regular rainfall offers a bounty of benefits. The water nurtures plants, trees, and crops; nourishes the soil; and combats drought. In addition, the rain gives us the gift of rainbows, and even cleans our cars for free!

Rainy day yoga . . . go with the flow

Rainy days offer a backdrop of soothing sound that lets us tune in to the tasks at hand. With our focus fixed, the workday slips by seamlessly. Creativity flows. Rainy days are perfect days to write in a journal, read a book, clean out a closet, sip some soup. Walking in the rain–with or without the one you love–can feel peaceful or exhilarating, depending on your mood. No wonder rain shower strolls have been immortalized in music and art. rain days

I love to hear the rhythmic voice of rainfall when I am on my yoga mat. As the water flows, so does the body, moving fluidly from posture to posture, as natural as the rain. I might begin with Bridge pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana), some simple stretches, and a reclining twist on my mat, followed by Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar) with heart-opening Crescent Lunges (Anjaneyasana). A series of strengthening standing postures such as Tree (Vrksasana), Warrior I and II (Virabhadrasana), Triangle (Trikonasana, shown at right), and Half Moon Pose (Ardha Chandrasana) might follow, all the better if the rain is flowing fiercely.

After more mat work, my rainy day yoga routine would end with deep relaxation (Savasana) in a reclining restorative pose, soothed into stillness by the sweet murmur of raindrops whispering at my window.

Soothing shades of gray

On Tuesday evenings I teach a yoga class near my home in Yonkers, and the students and I joke that if it’s dreamstime_xs_45416275raining, it must be Tuesday, because rain showers and gray skies seem to favor our practice time. I recently reminded my students that there are many delightful shades of gray that are not the least bit dreary. The vast Benjamin Moore gray color palette includes some yummy-sounding ones: Full Moon, Mineral Ice, Deep Space. To these I would add my own “custom” favorites: Fluffy Bunny Gray and Wolf Pup Gray.

One of the friendliest visitors to our backyard, the Gray Catbird (shown at left), offers a soothing spectrum of gray shades, from powder to slate, in its feathers. And our cat IMG_1309Selene, the sweetest cat I have ever known, is fur-coated in her own personalized shade, Loving Kitty Gray. We named Selene after the Greek goddess of the moon (hence all those e’s) when we adopted her because our son Harrison (then eleven years old) said that the irregular pattern of her silky gray and white fur reminded him of the dimpled silvery surface of the moon. (Her full name is Selene Moonbeam.) Selene is shown at right in one of her favorite yoga poses, Donut-Shaped Kitty Savasana. She is an expert at it!

What say you: yeah or nay for rain? When it’s raining, do you prefer to play indoors or outside? Do you have a favorite rainy day yoga pose or pranayama? And what are your favorite shades of gray?

 

Photo credits: Rain Pouring Off Roof ©Peshkova|Dreamstime.com; Louise in Triangle ©YogaBright; Gray Catbird ©Brian Kushner|Dreamstime.com; Selene in Savasana ©YogaBright.

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017

Breathe, Then Breathe Again

Never underestimate the healing power of your breath

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In a late July issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Elizabeth Levin shared a transformative journey, both personal and professional, that speaks directly to the heart of the yogi.

In her fourth year of medical school, in a subinternship at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Dr. Levin worked with a 36-year-old woman, a mom, with metastatic breast cancer. On the final day of her rotation, Dr. Levin visited the patient for the last time. During their conversation, the patient talked about her plans for her young son’s care after her death. As the women spoke, Dr. Levin began to cry. “I could not stop myself,” she wrote in her JAMA article, “Learning to Breath.”

Dr. Levin continued, “As I continued to cry, she cried as well. I knew she was upset with herself, and me, because she felt crying was a sign of weakness. Despite my best efforts, I cried and, in the process, upset my patient even more.”

As part of her medical training, Dr. Levin was taking a course in mindfulness-based stress heart in handsreduction (MBSR). On the same day as that painful goodbye, the MBSR class focused on coping with stress encountered during clinical practice. During a meditation segment, the instructor asked the medical students to talk about a difficult time they’d had with a patient. While her classmates shared their experiences, Dr. Levin struggled to relax and breathe. She was losing her focus, her presence in the moment, and she dreaded sharing her experience with her colleagues.

She writes, “ . . . the time came for my turn and I began my story of the day. Crying, I felt the pit in my stomach. I became aware of my breath, the short inspirations and the tightness in my throat. But I felt relief as I told my story to the group.”

Over the following weeks, the doctors-in-training observed and documented how challenging patient interactions affected their own bodies and breath. Dr. Levin noticed that she often held her breath when confronted with sadness or suffering. With practice, she learned to stay present and not be swept away by the rising tide of emotion during stressful encounters. 

A year later, working as a resident in internal medicine, Dr. Levin used the tools of mindfulness, particularly deep breathing, to help support another critically ill patient and her family. She remained compassionate, but in control. She wrote that this pivotal experience, and others that followed, would not have been possible had she not learned how to breathe.

I came across Dr. Levin’s piece while looking for articles about yoga research, and was touched by her experiences and her honesty. Her article reminds us that yoga is not only practiced on the mat, or in a pose. This young doctor is practicing yoga when she uses her breath to steady herself in difficult situations; she’s using yoga when she shows her patients compassion.

Never underestimate the healing power of your breath. As I regularly tell students, observe your breath. Observe it when you rest and as you move. Let your breath calm you, cool you, warm you, serve you. Breathe, then breathe again, before you scream harsh words at a loved one, when someone cuts you off on the road, when you’re pissed at your boss, when you feel like you’re losing your mind. And cherish your breath, because it keeps you strong and alive.

To learn simple yogic breathing techniques, click on the Pranayama tab.  

Lotus Mind illustration: © Antaratma Images | Dreamstime.com; Your heart in my hands photo: © Mitar Gavric | Dreamstime.com 

Saturday, August 8th, 2015
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