Monday, December 7, 2015

Living Better With Yoga Part 2

Whenever I travel, I like to take yoga classes. This past week, I was in Florida and took advantage of the offerings from a sweet space called The Zen Room. (If you're in the Cape Canaveral area, stop in, because the place is great and surrounding Cocoa Village is a treat.)

I arrived a few minutes prior to the posted class time, in order to introduce myself and do all the paperwork, etc. What I could tell from walking up to the door is that there was a class going on inside. As I got closer, I realized they were sitting in meditation. This sitting practice broke as more of us arrived and students began moving meditation cushions to make space for yoga mats. At the beginning of the class, the yoga instructor informed us that there was a meditation intensive (my word, not hers) going on, and that some of the meditation students would be joining us for yoga and that we were invited to stay for meditation after yoga. Well, I never pass up an opportunity to sit, so I was very interested in staying!

After Julie's lovely, just-what-I-needed practice to move my breath, joints and muscles around, I plopped myself down on a cushion and listened to Roshi Danny offer instructions and tips on how to sit. He is an approachable teacher, easily laughs and very inviting (as I've found most of the people I met in Cocoa Village to be). Once he explained the different ways to sit and remain comfortable and advised us not to suffer during our sit, he invited us to turn and face the wall. After resettling, I began focusing on my breath. I heard the AC unit shut off, and the wind around Cocoa took that opportunity to really pick up. As lightweight items began to blow around the room, I heard a few people rise and shut the doors. Rochi struck a few items to make clacking and chiming sounds that would indicate the start and end of our sit. 

And then I was alone with my breath, my body aches and my thoughts.

I usually have an easier time meditating in a group than alone. That morning, however, my thoughts were in control. I kept trying to yank my mind back to my breath, back to my spine, back to anything other than the stories, the plans the entertaining chatter of my mind. Roshi offered us a tool: count the breaths; he invited us to count to 10 breaths and then repeat, or count to our age, or to any number that we like. I was able to count to 3 before my mind veered away from my breath. I kept counting to 3. After a few minutes of this, Roshi said:

Invite everything in to your mind and everything out, like a swinging door. In... And out.

With that image, and that invitation, I was released from the grip of my thoughts. I used that image and slowed it down to match my breath. In... And out.

The wind.
Roshi's words.
The village.

It all came together in a theme: acceptance.

An old, beloved Zen master was asked, "What is the final koan?"
He replied, "I can't tell you the last koan, but I can tell you the answer. The answer is love."

Monday, November 2, 2015

When the Pose Doesn’t Fit

This post originally appeared on the Breathe Los Gatos blog on November 18, 2014.

There are many reasons why a pose doesn’t work for someone, which means there are many ways for me to address it when someone tells me they can’t practice the pose that I’m offering that moment. Some students will set out on their yoga adventure with shining enthusiasm, but are met with difficulty stemming from their current situation and their conditioning. These barriers can be physical or psychological.
After years of hurting myself in Shoulderstand,
I found this option. Photo credit: Joereal

Physical Barriers to the Imaginary “Perfect” Pose

Last year, I began a tentative trek into the land of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga. This is a yoga practice that requires discipline, strength, flexibility, patience, devotion, tenacity and – most importantly – faith. It took a lot of trust for me to enter the Mysore room, to listen to instructor Erika Abrahamian and her assistants when they offered alignment tips that were different from the way I had been practicing, and to believe that it would get better. After a year of practicing, I can report that, for me, it did get better… in some ways. But I had to acquaint myself with my physical barriers first.

These barriers may show up quickly for someone whose joints are stiff, but for someone who is hypermobile, it can take years of overdoing, then paying for it, then rehabilitating, then trying again, to map out the danger zones. All along the way, Erika would ask me (and I’d ask myself, too) “Is this really a barrier? Or is it a habit?” At the same time that these questions float through my mind, I’m also witnessing my egoic self wanting to look like everyone else, advance as quickly and be praised just as much. The tug of war happens the moment I lay my mat down and I make a conscious effort about how safe I want to play it and how much I want to be “in the club,” as yoga teacher Kent Bond is fond of saying. No one can dictate which side of the fence I’ll land on in any given practice.

When one of my students meets a physical barrier, I run through the same questions; how much of this barrier is physical, how much does this person need to be pushed – or told to back off, and how can I help them find a way to conform while staying safe? There are no easy answers, and each experience is different.

One piece of advice that I do pass along is to treat each practice as a new adventure, because we are dynamic creatures and we can never truly predict how our bodies will respond for sure.

Today might be the day that you stand on your hands in perfect balance… or, it might not.

Psychological Barriers to the Imaginary “Perfect” Pose

Memory plays such a big role in our yoga practice. Music, imagery, certain cues, touch and all the other sensations can help – or hinder us – as we practice. I once had a student whose foot fell asleep each time she practiced swan pose in my yin class (similar to a folded pigeon pose, held for 5 minutes). This reminded her of when she was a child and would have seizures, because each of her episodes was preceded by her feet falling asleep. She couldn’t tolerate the swan pose for more than a few seconds. She became afraid, anxious and uncomfortable, and the more she practiced, the worse it became. Together we worked with her body to find another way to practice this pose, because she wasn’t ready to address the trauma that the sensations brought from her past to the present. At times yoga teachers are treated like therapists, and some do have training, but since I don’t, I worked around the issue which made sense to me at the time.

So many of us misinterpret our memories as fixed stories whose details and consequences can never be changed. I’ve found that memory is fluid. You know that saying, “there’s his side and there’s her side, but the truth lies somewhere in the middle”? That works for memory, too. I have a friend who grew up in Germany, then moved to Italy as a young adult and now lives here in the US. When she was in Italy, she replayed the dramas of her youth – the slights and painful experiences of her childhood – and they always played out in her mind with people speaking German. Now that she is here in the US, when she recalls these same incidences, the people in them are speaking Italian. No one ever spoke Italian when she was growing up, but this demonstrates how fluid our perception of experiences can be.

One day I can come into someone’s yoga class and really enjoy all the plank and chaturanga dandasanas (low push-ups) that this person offers; another day, I feel very annoyed by this repetition – probably because my wrists are hurting, or my poses don’t look as good as my neighbors, etc.

Perception is fluid. 

Memory is fluid. 

Things are rarely what they appear to be.

Just as memory can build psychological roadblocks, so can expectation. Have you ever gone to a teacher’s class with a longing for their voice, their music, their sequence that you know will “fix” whatever ails you in that moment, only to find that there is a sub? If you cling tightly to your expectations, then you are guaranteed to meet another barrier. Your mind will begin to chatter, “She doesn’t teach this pose this way; why can’t she just do it the way I know?” or “Is this really an appropriate pose for this class? Doesn’t he know what we normally do?” These, and other, thoughts stem from the egoic self, which never wants to look bad trying something new. This voice may quiet with more exposure to yoga teachers and practices, but it may always be there. I’ve even been told these words to my face before. This is a situation where the student has put up a shield and, until it comes back down, he or she will remain unteachable.

Transformation is delayed. Ego wins.

I’ve been here and thought that and my advice is to breathe. Trust in the goodness of others, trust yourself, trust the universe and let go. Once we turn away from the egoic self, an entirely new practice opens up.

Poses may not necessarily fit, but maybe they don’t need to.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Living Better With Yoga Part 1

A regular yoga practice has made my life better, in so many ways. I know that when I’m at my worst, most desperate state, my practice is there. But it doesn’t always look like an asana practice; that is to say, my yoga doesn’t require me to roll out my mat and do several rounds of Sun Salutations. It’s great when I can do that, but practicing something – anything – during those trying times helps me reclaim perspective and clarity.

I have taught yoga in some interested places: adult education centers, elementary schools, corporate conferences, airports, beaches, parks… But the place I find the most use for yoga is in a hospital. I’m sharing here some of my more memorable hospital teaching experiences.

Yoga on the Stanford Hospital Psych Ward

As yoga becomes more well-known to the medical community as a supportive healing tool, more and more hospitals are willing to adopt yoga practices. I received a call to teach yoga to the psychiatric patients at Stanford Hospital a few years back, and I was excited and curious how I could be of service. When I arrived at the hospital for my first class, I realized that the staff was looking at the practice from a purely physical perspective, like another fitness class. As the weekly class continued, much of that changed. The logistics of the class were the most challenging part of teaching there. Yes, the patients had their moments of challenge, too, but for the most part, they remained very open and tried their best to follow along despite heavy medications.

It was here that I began to understand the power of brain chemistry. Asana, meditation, breathing, etc. can only do so much if the brain chemistry balance isn’t right.

I met a woman one week who seemed a bit out of place there. She was so competent and clear-headed that I mistook her for a staff member at first. She followed the breathing, body awareness, movement and relaxation practices with what seemed like ease. The following week, I saw her as soon as I entered the ward and went up to her to invite her to class, but I could tell something was wrong. Her breathing was labored and she couldn’t seem to think clearly enough to get a sentence out. She told me she was afraid to walk to the room for yoga because she was unsteady on her feet. I got her a nurse to escort her and she tried to follow along for the first few minutes of class, but left in tears. (One very nice thing about teaching in a supportive ward is that I knew that her nurse would follow her to be sure she was okay, which let me continue the class without worry.) The following week I returned and she came back to class, much clearer than before. She told me the week prior she had been detoxing from her anti-anxiety medications, which sent her into a panic attack. With her heart and mind racing, not to mention the physical discomfort of withdrawal, she was unable to use her mind to observe and calm her mind.

I believe whole-heartedly in the power of yoga to adjust for chronic conditions, but when the situation turns acute, I respectfully bow to the power of chemistry.

The Yoga Piece to the Chronic Pain Management Puzzle at Kaiser

Several years ago, I was contracted to teach yoga as part of a team of providers working with chronic pain patients at the Santa Clara Kaiser location. The program is run like an intervention, providing patients with tools to learn about their pain, how their brain processes pain, and how to stop the pain cycle. In this program, I am one tool in a multi-disciplined toolbox, which includes medical experts, behavior experts, movement experts and nutrition experts. In addition, the patients support each other in a community of similarly conditioned humans. The yoga practice that I offer them has been honed down quite a bit from what I originally expected them to be able to do. It was clear from the first week of working with these patients that the debilitation, deconditioning and sensory-motor amnesia that occurs with long-term pain (and medications) required a softer, subtler approach. As a teacher, I am constantly asking these patients to say yes when their habit has been to say no, a habit that comes from a deep part of their brains that tells them to stay away from pain. In order to ask them to breathe, track sensation and – possibly – move their bodies, I need to meet them where they are. Before I teach them, I have a “huddle”, a meeting with all the providers who share with me the patients’ mobility, medication and mental issues, as well as giving me their insight on the group as a whole, so that I have some insight about how to approach them most effectively.

Some of the patients have been very resistant to yoga. Some have overcome that and now embrace yoga, while some have not. What’s so impressive about this program is that you don’t have to love all aspects of it. If someone doesn’t like yoga, there are other methods of healing movement. What’s important is that the patients – we humans – stay open, and keep trying.

On a side note: for those of you who many be interested in working with chronic pain, I will be leading a yoga workshop next year, along with one of my colleagues from this Kaiser program. Stay tuned for more details as they are finalized.

Healing Breathing for the Good Samaritan Oncology Patients

This year I began a program at Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose. I teach breathing practices to cancer patients in their hospital rooms. I was inspired to do this because of so many of my Yoga for Cancer Survivorship students telling me, “I love this practice, but I wish I had started sooner in my recovery.” I thought about what I could offer in those difficult moments, and the breath work was born.

I teach a sequence of breathing that meets the patient where he or she is – most likely in a state of stress, and then steps them through different techniques until the breath is smooth and calm. It takes 5-10 minutes and has fast results. Most patients reported feeling calmer, less nauseated, in less pain or more focused.

When I enter the rooms and ask if they’d like to practice Healing Breathing with me, I know I won’t get everyone to participate. It’s fine with me if they say no right then; I let them know I’ll be on the ward a little while if they change their minds. It’s also fine with me if they tell me the breathing had no affect on them; perhaps I’ve planted a seed for some pranayama practice later. And if they don’t have the concentration to receive it, I’ll limit the practice to the simplest form: watching the breath. That can be enough that day.

These situations and patients have taught me so much. Yoga is a great tool for living better, and it has its limitations, but there is always something we can do. Stay tuned for more installments of Living Better with Yoga...

Monday, July 6, 2015

Yoga, a Tool to Relieve Suffering

I often joke with my students that my favorite place to practice my calm, 3-part breathing is in the dentist's chair. I know there may be a few of you reading who actually enjoy the dentist, but let me tell you that it's one place where suffering arises for me. A lot. Not just physical suffering (although there's plenty of that to go around), but emotional suffering, too. I have a knack for beating myself up about my dental hygiene, if I'm not careful. After a few decades of unpleasant experiences at the dentist, I decided to try something different. I started using my yogic breathing and conscious relaxation techniques to calm down during my visits, and it really helped make my appointments more enjoyable. I even had a dental hygienist ask me if I was falling asleep once! Focusing on my breathing helps keep my mind away from the blame rut, and my physical practice allows me to relax into the chair without triggering my chronic pain.

During my most recent visit, my doctor found a chip in one of my many fillings, and asked me to stay to get it taken care of right away. That meant that instead of 60 minutes of dentist-chair practice, I got 90 minutes. While I was waiting for the anesthesia to take effect, I checked my emails, and found one from someone who had just been diagnosed with cancer. She and I knew each other from before my yoga days, when our children went to school together, and then she began coming to classes with me. As my mouth grew numb, my heart broke. I pictured the long road ahead for her: surgery (if she's lucky), chemo, radiation (hopefully not)... Minutes before, I had been lamenting the drill, the soreness, the drooling that would come with my dental work. These discomforts paled compared to what she is facing. I replied to her email with the only answer I have: come to yoga.

There is a special chemistry that forms in our Yoga for Cancer Survivorship classes, a recipe made up of all the students who show up, despite what they are feeling and facing. Some days there are tears. Some days there is laughter. Some days I feel helpless and can only host an accepting environment that I hope does some good. Some days there is joy. Students are reminded of their connection with each other and with their bodies. Whether it's anxiety or pain, students report feeling relief from the suffering after class.

On Saturday, September 12, I'll be producing the second annual Pose 4 a Purpose Yoga Festival and Fundraiser in Los Gatos. This event brings together nearly 20 of the area's yoga studios and many more teachers, who volunteer their time and talents to raise money for Cancer CAREpoint, a local nonprofit offering free non-medical services to people with cancer. From wig banks to support groups, meditation to massage, nutrition to yoga lessons, this organization presents several different ways to support people dealing with the suffering brought on by a cancer diagnosis.

I'm so pleased to be able to unite our yoga community this way, so that we can practice to relieve our own suffering, as well as others. I hope you'll join me!

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu
"May all beings everywhere be happy and free from suffering"

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Many Rivers to Cross...

I recently came to an intersection in my learning. I'm sure there were many intersections like this in my past that went unnoticed. This one I noticed. Several different areas of movement and different discoverers of healing modalities came together in a meeting place that was quite profound for me. It reminded me of my first time visiting Esalen in Big Sur, and I heard the alternative name for the place: where the healing waters meet. This refers to the healing waters of the fresh water spring, hot springs and the ocean. From the Esalen Institute website:
Water flows at the heart of Esalen. Three water sources converge here to form a trinity of creation, renewal, and destruction, harkening back to our own ancient origins. According to Chinese medicine and other traditions, the human emotional body is held by the water element. Perhaps that is one reason why Esalen is a safe and powerfully healing place to look within.

Reflecting Pool

Looking within really began with my yoga practice. I recall learning about Thomas Hanna's work about somatic movements during my first yoga teacher training, and I can still recall the exact movements that I did and sensations they evoked. It was much different than the vinyasa yoga that I was intending to teach. It was also very challenging for me and at that time, I wasn't ready to dive that far into the deep end. So I waded in... I would use one or two of the movements in all of my classes, and I dabbled in leading classes that solely used this type of retraining of the brain-body connection. What really struck me is how fluid the movements were - even if I didn't feel very fluid at the start of the movements, I found that I did at the end of the practice.

Rivers of Prajna

Years later, I began working with Tias Little of Prajna Yoga in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Along with traditional static and dynamic yoga sequences, he introduced me to movements that were similar to the Hanna Somatics: on the floor, slow, fluid and repetitive. There is a very watery feel to the practice that he calls SATYA (Sensory Awareness Training for Yoga Attunement). Last fall, I completed a 5 day training in SATYA with Prajna Yoga. During that time, two channels were dug that helped the flow of information. The first was that I met a man named Don Smith, who I wrote about shortly after I returned; Don spoke at length about the fluidity of the body, and the message that I took away from meeting him was that it was my job / duty / privilege to encourage people to move this way. The second path appeared when Tias asked us to pay attention to our dreams...

Prenatal Aquatics

I have always had vivid dreams, but I can recall one dream that imprinted itself so deeply on my memory that I can still conjure up the sensations the dream evoked, even 20 years later. I was pregnant with my first child, and as my delivery due date drew near, I had a dream that I delivered a big silver fish, rather than a human baby! This was obviously a clear representation of the anxiety I had around giving birth and being a parent, and this image has burned itself into my mind.

Last month I took a workshop with Beth Pettengill Riley, who reminded me that we are all aquatic beings in vitro, and that we are 90% fluid at birth, as our bones haven't yet set. Perhaps this fish I had delivered in my dream was more of a representation of what I felt from the outside: a slippery, swimming, moving creature. (But most likely it was a sign of anxiety!)

She went on to share with us the fluid, nonlinear, aquatic movements that we are all capable of doing, a modality called Continuum Movement. I attempted to move my spine in a way that didn't have the context of yoga, qi gong, dance or exercise; the movements were also meant to be free from the conditions of wife, mother, sister, daughter, gender , culture and age. It felt odd, subtle, awkward and freeing all at the same time. I was really in the deep end of this work now!

Photo credit link

Mental Fluidity

Now here I stand, at the intersection of all these bodies of water, flowing with information that is accessible but dynamic. Again I look within as I contemplate where I will bring this knowledge to bear. The obvious answer is that moving this way will help me and others feel more comfortable in our own skin as it dims pain, stiffness and moves healthy fluids.

A subtler application is with my mental framework. I find myself asking the questions,
Am I able to think more fluidly? To find the path of least resistance? 
Can I move forward without regret, like a stream "remeandering" its course once its been disrupted?

As Bruce Lee said, "Be like water."
I don't know what that will look like in my day-to-day life, but it's worth exploring.

Note: for those of you interested, there are 3 spaces still available for the Breathe Costa Rica Yoga & Service Retreat this July, led by myself and Christina Enneking. See the Events page for more details. Registration is closing soon.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Evidence-Based Yoga

Yoga is a holistic practice. Asana (poses), pranayama (breathing) and mindfulness (paying attention for an extended period of time, on purpose) are some of the main ingredients of this practice. When I began teaching yoga to people with cancer, I investigated how to apply these practices in a way that would be the most effective.

I had heard claims about twists releasing toxins, inversions supporting the immune system, backbends counteracting depression and forward bends curbing anxiety. I would try to repeat these claims in my yoga classes, but I always felt uncomfortable stating them. I have a bachelor's degree in engineering; I used the scientific method for decades, and to be simply restating someone else's results without having checked their accuracy felt fraudulent to me.

I began to look at yoga from a western, reductionist perspective, asking myself about the biology of each pose, each breathing technique, each mindfulness tool. I narrowed my focus down to the basic elements of each practice and searched through the scientific studies to find supporting data for using them.

I uncovered many studies that I dismissed, because they were designed without randomized selection and/or control groups. Randomized selection discourages bias and control groups help determine if the results are due to the placebo effect. Granted, it is difficult to determine a control situation for yoga practices, because most people know when they are practicing yoga and when they are not, but some researchers have become very creative when designing control groups. I collected these studies and used their protocols to support any claims I made in yoga classes, because I felt secure that the results from these studies were repeatable.

Still, yoga is a holistic practice. My classes are not just a list of studies. I offer the traditional longevity tools of asana, pranayama and mindfulness, but I make sure that the pieces of the holistic puzzle have research behind them, so that the practice is the most effective that it can be.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Reality 2.0

There are rare few among us who enter this world fully actualized.
The vast majority of us see "reality" through the lens of our conditions: our upbringing, situation in life, culture and education play a huge roll in what we believe to be real. Like a piece of software, this view of reality can get stuck in an old process and become outdated; what we really need are better inputs, more experiences with a wider range of people, places and situations and / or more education. When we reflect and assimilate this information, our version of reality is upgraded. Where we once saw the world in terms of black and white, we now may see shades of gray. Reality 2.0.

We experience true empathy, rather than sympathy, when we expand our perspectives this way.

So how do we upgrade our views of the world? First, there must be a desire to do so. That doesn't come from the mind, it comes from the heart. Next, we can study; reading, viewing, listening... these are great tools, but remember that they are from someone else's perspective. In my opinion,

Taking action is the bravest and more effective way to upgrade reality. 

When your entire being - body, heart, mind, breath - are involved, the upgrade is impactful and change is inevitable. Instead of shades of gray, we might even see colors!

Retreats and travel have always had this effect on me. Taking me out of my comfort zone and the version of reality that I'm used to, these trips always change me.

Lorien in Corcovado Park,
Costa Rica
Last year, I visited Malawi, Africa, as part of a yoga and service retreat. I will be forever affected by this country, the work we did, the people we met (with eyes that shine so brightly with love for the world!), and the friends we made. This year, I'm co-leading another yoga and service retreat, this time to Costa Rica. There are expectations that I have for this trip, because I've seen the country before, but I know in my heart that it will be an experience that will change me. From the hanging bridges in the Cloud Forest of Monteverde to the wild jungles of the Osa Peninsula, this country is rich in animals and warm, friendly people. We have some idea of the service work that we'd like to offer, because we are coordinating with the president of one of the smaller towns, and she's letting us know what they need. One of the lessons we learned in Malawi was to really investigate what people need, rather than assume using our outdated version of reality. We have an idea that we'll be installing more of the solar-powered LED lights in a school; these made a huge difference to the people in Malawi! Another idea is that we'll be helping with a garden to make the entire school more self-sustainable. Another idea is that we'll be helping with the sea turtles that come ashore near this town.

We'll go with open hearts and open minds, ready to have our view of reality upgraded.

If you're interested in this retreat, the deadline for the early bird discount is Sat, Feb 14. There is an information night at Breathe Los Gatos on Fri, Mar 6 at 7:30pm. Details about costs are available on my Events page, and you can place your deposit directly with Breathe Los Gatos by contacting Lauren Wierman Palladino:

Monday, February 2, 2015

Yoga Anywhere - Even in Bed

"If I don't do some kind of practice for 10 minutes before I try to get up in the morning, I might not even make it out of bed. Because of my arthritis pain, the practice makes the difference between shuffling (and praying I don't fall) and walking to the bathroom."

My student told me this yesterday, as she was sharing how happy she is to be able to practice every day and improve her quality of life. Not all of us have this type of motivation for our daily practice. For some of us, the difficulty with maintaining a daily practice is finding time. Once we get up, the demands of family and business appear more important than our own self-care.

The following practice was inspired by an email from a mattress company, Casper, who claims to have the perfect combination of memory and latex foam. They wanted to know what yoga poses could be done in bed, for those of us - like my student above, who need to practice in bed, or those of us who just don't want to leave our comfy havens.

Yoga in bed is a way to support ourselves, before the day begins, so that we suffer less throughout the day. Here are my 10 favorite poses to do in bed. Use pillows and rolled up blankets for props; you'll probably want the covers off once you begin moving around.

1. Resting Butterfly - with and without support

2. Windshield Wipers - move side to side

3. Banana

4. Figure Four

5. Sphinx - 2 options

6. Sleeping Swan

7. Supported Twist

8. Open Sesame - 3 options

9. Toe / Ankle Stretch

10. Seated Pranayama / Meditation

Monday, January 19, 2015

Walking Meditation

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Lao-tzu

Photo: Jennifer Prugh

It's early morning, just before dawn. We rose to practice yoga asana together in this different place, different country, different experience, and our leaders tell us that our practice this morning will be different, too. Instead of exploring mountains and triangles and warriors, we are going to walk the shore of Lake Malawi as a meditation, an inner exploration.

I roll up my mat, remove my socks (it's cold, but I don't want them to get sandy) and step onto the sand, recalling the instructions for walking meditations taught to me years ago. This is a practice that I find very useful, and not just as an alternative to seated meditation. During times when I felt most uncertain about my beliefs, my opinions, my path, I found peace and strength from walking meditation. I hear the cues in my head.
Stand. Pause. Breathe. Notice.
Feel your feet, observing the texture of the surface you're standing on.
Start to shift your weight from one foot to the other, moving slow enough to notice the subtle changes.
I feel the cold sand slide beneath my feet as I transfer my weight. The unevenness reminds me that I will need to stay present if I want to keep my balance.
Begin the simplified movements of walking in place: lift your heel, push the ball of your foot, feel the bottom of your foot as it lands, then repeat with the other foot.
I begin moving with the rhythm of my own breath and I notice that others have already begun walking and I am far behind. No rush, I tell myself. When I feel as if someone has pulled me by the heart, I slowly advance forward.
Inhale. Lift. Push. Feel. Drop. 
Exhale. Lift. Push. Feel. Drop.
Over and over again I follow the cues in my head. I remember the instructor explaining that people practice walking meditation at many different speeds, but that I should find the speed that keeps me focused on what is happening right now.

After a while, I catch up to the back of the pack. I decide to find a new texture and walk through the shallow parts of the lake, a large enough body of water to offer small waves lapping the packed sand. The water is much warmer than the sand and my toes are happy. I repeat my steps in the water for as long as I can. When I reach a place on the shore where a small river is connecting with the lake, I look up and see the sky glowing.

I want to hold this sight forever. But a wave tickles my ankles and the sand shifts beneath me. Time to let go. Time to turn back. Time to reconnect. The practice awaits.

Inhale. Lift. Push. Feel. Drop. 
Exhale. Lift. Push. Feel. Drop.

Monday, January 5, 2015


Photo: moominmolly
At the end of each of my classes for people dealing with cancer, I ask my students to send their voices out to people who may need a respite from their own cancer journey. I imagine our "om" chant creates a ripple in the energy field of life, so that someone near or far might feel a moment of peace. I picture the faces of my friends here in town, as well as those in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and out further in Ontario and on to Johannesburg and in Singapore. All these people are dealing with cancer. All are facing the same fears, pain, hopes and dreams. All are part of the same tribe. We call it a reluctant tribe, but has a healing potential, whether reluctant or not.

Evolutionary Entrainment

Entrainment in the biomusicological sense refers to the synchronization of organisms to an external rhythm, usually produced by other organisms with whom they interact socially. Have you ever noticed yourself tapping out the rhythm of a song on the radio, even if you don't know or like that song? When I ask my students to chant the sound of om, they will attempt to match the pitch, volume and length of the other voices. If I play music during the pranayama portion of my classes, my students will try to match their breaths to the beat of the music - often without their awareness!

It's believed that this behavior developed as part of a survival mechanism. The ability to be entrained allows humans to fall into the altered state of consciousness called battle trance. In this state, humans lose their individuality, do not feel fear and pain, are united in a shared collective identity, and act in the best interests of the group. This was crucial for the physical survival of our ancestors against the big African predators.

The tribe that entrained was the tribe that survived.

Healing Entrainment

Has anyone told you, "you have an infectious smile [or laugh]"? If so, you've been participating in a healing version of entrainment. Rather than preparing us to go into battle, this shift in consciousness moves us into a calmer state of rest and relaxation - where healing can occur. I first noticed this in my own practice when I observed how much easier it is (though still challenging) to meditate in a community rather than on my own at home. My tribe kept me present and accountable.

I encourage people going through cancer treatments to come to class as often as they can so they can feel the healing power of their community, of their tribe. Practicing at home is also important, and can be very effective once they have experienced the potency of a class environment.

Now that the predators are more likely to come from within our own bodies, reconnecting with our tribe is vital. We don't have to be physically present. We don't have to be exactly alike. We just have to recognize our similarities and entrain to that calming rhythm.

Reluctant or not, our tribes will save us.