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.