About Breathing, Mothering, Yoga off the mat

About breathing, pt 2: It will click when you least expect it

In and out. Those are the basics. Fresh and clean in, used and finished out.

There are a multitude of breaths, or pranayama, in yoga. Tools to calm us, OR, to speed things up, to cool or heat the body, with the ultimate end goal of stilling the mind. Some call this zen, but I’m not clear on the differences between Buddhism and Yoga yet, so I will plainly call it stillness.

This past Sunday, my son (who will be three in November) fell on our brick hearth. I was not there to see it, but my daughter ran in to me, pleading “come now, please, Strider* hit his head and there’s a lot of blood.” Her panic was palpable. I immediately kicked into stoic mode.

What is stoic mode? Probably not a real thing, but for me, it is when I shuck off my emotions and shut down whatever I’m doing to focus on what is happening at that precise moment.

Stop what you’re doing. Go with her. How is Strider (son)? Crying, Dad has a paper towel and is holding it on Strider’s head. There is blood.

“Everyone needs shoes,” I say. “Let me finish brushing my teeth.” Dad is sitting in the backseat with Strider. Dove (daughter) in the front with me.

“He didn’t pass out,” I think/say. I call Bluetooth calling Urgent Care. Didn’t pass out, no vomiting, bleeding stopped. Ok put us on the list. “He’s not even crying anymore.”

Dove is close to hyperventilating. I turn off the music. I start paying attention to my breath.

“We’re lucky the doctor can see us today, we’ll be there in ten minutes.” Just now I begin to pay attention to how I breathe. In slowly, three, four. Hold. Out, two, three, four. My right hand is on my daughter’s knee. She rarely gets to sit shotgun, but she needs to be here today.

Upon arrival, the staff at Urgent Care takes a look at him and tells us he’ll probably have to go to the hospital because you can see his skull and they aren’t capable of MRI. Please wait and the doctor will see us.

We sure did get transferred. Three hours and ten stitches later we were home. We set an early bedtime.

“Mom, how did you stay so calm?” Dove asked me at bedtime. I am not always even and calm. It takes awareness, focus, and patience… also time.

“I’m not always that way,” I admitted. “As you know. But I can really turn it on when I need to.”

“How?” She asked.

“It takes a lot of practice.” We both laughed.

I would not say that practicing yoga will make you immune to stress or the dramas of life. But with practice, you might at least be able to turn it on and glide through.

AND! Strider got his stitches out today!

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Mothering, Pondering, Yoga off the mat

Lessons from the Atlantic

Our family is vacationing on the sandy shores of southern Maine, aka Back Home for me. Our first beach day, coordinating boogie boards and SPFs proved to take a little longer than expected, so we arrived towards the end of the low tide coming in.

Man did we get thrashed. The waves were deceptively rough, making for lots of giggles in the beginning but resulting in bathing suits full of sand, goggles and hair-ties being swept from our possession, and extra salty tears.

My 8 year-old, an accomplished swimmer and aspiring marine biologist, took the brunt of Mother Ocean’s teachings. There is always another wave coming. Sometimes the shiny are revealed to be trash when you’ve finally got them in hand. If a great force takes your goggles, you will never see them again… let go and commit to holding more tightly next time. Sometimes you have to submit to the sand and accept it as part of the experience.

We all got beat up pretty well on that first beach day. I was worried that the kids wouldn’t want to go back. But we did! Before low tide. The tide was calmer, the surf gentle. We collected shells and whole crab carcasses, marveling at how clear and warm the tide pools were. “It’s nice to have a relaxed beach day,” my 8 year-old commented, “but the waves are too gentle to (body) board. So I guess it’s good we can have it both ways.”

Truth, baby. That’s the truth.

Pondering, Yoga off the mat

Flexibility, fostering growth

I was talking to a friend about her knee pain, suggesting she stretch because sometimes knee pain means tight hamstrings, quads, or even the hips, the back…

“A little every day is better than a lot one day. Build up to longer holds and deeper stretches…” quoting myself here.

It occurred to me this is a good mantra for most days. A little every day is better than too much. Don’t expect too much right away. Learn to pause, be still, take time, be now.

Mothering, Yoga off the mat, Yoga on The Farm

This morning

It’s been nutty. My family has a pretty rugged virus that clobbered my husband and kids… fever, rash, I’ll spare you the gory details. Thankfully, I’ve remained healthy. The school year ends today, and as a mom and a PTA coordinator of things, this past month has been consuming. Our fridge died over Memorial Day weekend, and we’ve been eating out of a cooler for a week.

I have NOT been putting my oxygen mask on first, as they say. My cup is empty.

But today, this morning, there was a marked shift. Fevers are gone. It’s the last day of school! The loaner fridge arrives in 45 minutes.

AND, I went to the farm. My son and I met our friends M, the chickens, and Scout the yellow lab, and we talked. We played. We discovered chickens might (and do!) eat their own eggs if given the opportunity.

This is the land I will be teaching my first yoga series on. I tested my portable speaker. I waited for the heat to come, and it didn’t. It was shady, it was breezy, it was cool. There were birds singing. A crane hung out in the pond (pictured, look closely).

While there were no asanas / poses, there was no workout, this morning, I practiced yoga. I finally filled my cup. Breathed in that oxygen. Connected.

AND, I brought home some farm fresh eggs! Not a full dozen, though, because my son, the two year-old scientist, experimented and broke a few. How else would we have learned that chickens can be cannibals?

Pondering, Yoga off the mat

Impermanence

We try to be aware and accepting of impermanence. Tibetan sand mandalas are probably the most popular example of tangible impermanence, as well as practice in non-attachment.* These painstaking and beautiful pieces of art, created over hours of meditation, are simply blown away.

My toddler likes to “find the rainbows” that the morning light sometimes throws around our house. The spectrum shining on the carpet or the wall isn’t always there, and it always changes and disappears. So young, we begin training ourselves in impermanence.

These are two beautiful examples, but life is about balance. Sometimes things aren’t beautiful. Maybe you have knee pain. Or the world is caving in and it seems you’ve been dealt a “sh!t sandwich” as some might say. We need to remind ourselves that ugly, unpleasant things are also impermanent. Even our own negative thoughts, self-criticism… these moments, these feelings…

Whatever is. Whatever was. Nothing lasts forever.

Note: While I use the sand mandalas as an example to illustrate a point, we can’t forget that Buddhism and yoga are not the same thing.

 

Home yoga practice, meditation, Music and yoga, Yoga off the mat

Music as meditation

I listen to a lot of music. It occurred to me that music has been my meditation since I was about seven years old. I imagine it’s not uncommon.

The ancient philosopher Plato wrote about music as being “most sovereign because… rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it… imparting grace, if one is rightly trained… ” (The Republic, III, 399e). As an undergrad, I heard Ted Romberg summarize another of Plato’s views on music, which I remember as, “Music is the most perfect way to divide and account for time.” (Paraphrasing… )

Each time you listen to or play music to indulge, to set or change a mood… that is a form of meditation. Also singing. Putting headphones on as way to zone out, on the sidewalk, or on the train, that is a form of meditation. I started doing it when I was young, as a means to curb social anxiety, but it is what it is.

When we listen to music as we walk or run, it sets the pace, it makes us happy, it distracts us from the slog of the jog. We are training our mind to let go of the boring or painful parts of an activity. Music, to many of us, becomes a focus. It is a meditative device.

As a yoga teacher in training, I take my playlist preparation seriously. Music isn’t required, but it certainly can compliment a yoga class, especially if you like to flow. It is an accompaniment.

About Breathing, Yoga off the mat, Yoga to relieve stress

About breathing, pt 1: It’s hard to breathe

(post #1 on breathing, part of what will be a series)

Breathing. We begin in utero, and we spend our entire lives doing it. Maybe you think about breathing when you’re running, but we generally don’t pay attention to our breathing. We just do it.

Have you ever been┬ástressed and noticed your whole body reacting? We all experience stress on the regular. You spilled your coffee. You’re twenty minutes late. The subway construction means your commute will double tonight. Your kid bit another kid at daycare. Something happened at work. You lost your keys. Your mind races, your heart-rate increases, you might sweat, your chest feels tight, you’re breathing hard (or quickly, or shallowly)?

Your body was having an acute stress response. You were in fight-or-flight mode.

Did you notice that when your hart-rate and breathing return to normal? Maybe not, because it just happened. Or maybe when you did realize things were back to normal, you looked back and realized how awful it felt at the peak of that fight-or-flight stress.

What if you could *make* those awful feelings, your reactions to stress, go away?

Poof, gone!

What if you had skills to make the most stressful situation feel almost relaxing? I know this sounds crazy, but yoga can do that. Not overnight. Not over the course of a year. (Or maybe it can for some, but it certainly didn’t for me!) The breathing you practice in yoga can do this.

I have had friends tell me that they tried yoga, but the breathing stressed them out. That was me, for many, many years. A teacher would say, “Inhale, sweep your arms above your head… exhale and fold forward.” And in my my mind, I would say, “whatever, I’m just gonna put my arms up, breathe, and bend over.”

And that was fine. It was my yoga. I was there, on the mat, primarily for exercise. Ok, I’ll admit it. It was all about exercise. I wanted that quintessential “yoga body.” (Ha! If you know me, you know that despite the many hours I spend doing yoga, I never did achieve that “yoga body.” Actually, I AM a yoga body. But I don’t have a ballerina build).

It was many, many years before I actually “got” the breathing.

The first time it clicked, I wasn’t anywhere near a yoga mat. I was 23 years old, in a doctor’s office in midtown Manhattan, in the middle of a medical procedure that would remove what turned out to be pre-cancerous cells from my body. I had never undergone a diagnostic medical procedure, and I was panicked. I found that if I mentally counted while breathing… “In, two, three, four… out, two, three, four,” and tuned out the worries I had in my head, I felt better. Paying attention to my breath gave me something to focus on. Counting the breath made me slow down. At the time, I had been “doing yoga” (generally via books and tapes… yes, VCR tapes) for about two years, and I did not make the connection with yogic breathing at all.

In fact, it would take another ten years of on again, off again yoga practice before I ever really figured out the connection between yoga as exercise and yogic breathing, and exactly how it could lower my reaction to stress when I was off the mat.

Practice. It is all about practice. You can read all you want, you can be as fit as an Olympic distance runner, you still have to practice yoga to get it.

Experiencing yoga “off the mat” was life changing for me. I immediately realized it was a skill I wanted to hone. I have been practicing for twenty years.

Yet, I am still working on it. Believe me. I am still a “beginner” at breathing. Which is why this is the first post of what will be many, many musings about breathing.

post #1 on breathing, part of what will be a series. See series About Savasana here.