Keep Moving

If you read yoga books or blogs for any length of time, it isn’t long before you come across personal stories in which the yoga practitioner will say “yoga saved my life.” Kate Lebansky credits yoga for saving her from death by addiction. Chelsea Roff writes elegantly about how yoga saved her from anorexia. The singular Ana Forrest says that she was on the “suicide track” when she found yoga. Some version of the phrase “yoga saved my life” is even incorporated into the title of several books.

These stories are real and profound, but most practitioners simply want to improve their health and wellbeing, gain some strength and flexibility, or age more gracefully.

The Problem with Modern Life

Our modern sedentary lifestyles often result in tight hips and hamstrings, hunched shoulders, and neck flexion in a forward position. This can lead to lower back pain, tension in the shoulders, sore neck and poor posture. Years of neglecting these poor mechanics can sort of solidify, resulting in a permanent forward hunch. My elderly neighbor, bless her heart, is so stiff and immobile she is basically shaped like her recliner. She uses a walker and can no longer stand up straight. I’ve been next door to her for a long time and she wasn’t always like this. But years of staying immobile indoors has resulted in the posture of a comma.

It doesn’t have to end up like that. My motto is “keep moving.”  Keep moving so the body is energized, the muscles are engaged, and the nervous system is humming.

Keep Moving

A vital key to antiaging is circulation. Circulation of the blood and lymphatic fluids, circulation of oxygen throughout the body, circulation of nutrients into cells and toxins out of them, and circulation of fluids through our digestive and elimination systems. In short, circulation of energy. The less you move the less you move, in a downward spiral toward immobility, inflexibility and stodgy, sludgy tissues and fluids.

Sitting in the car/at the desk/on the couch will not promote circulation. Movement will. The simple but effective stretching, strengthening and balancing poses of yoga are the perfect system to correct postural problems, loosen joints, exercise the spine, and promote circulation.

Where to Begin?

If you are new to yoga and coming from a sedentary lifestyle, seek out a gentle yoga, Yin yoga, restorative yoga, or beginner’s class. Find a reputable studio with experienced and certified teachers. If the first class you take doesn’t spark your interest, try another. Yoga is an extremely personal experience, and different teachers with almost unlimited variations may mean there is trial and error to sort through. I was lucky to stumble into an excellent class on my first try, a class I took for the next four years before branching out. But I’ve taken enough classes that I didn’t enjoy to know that won’t be the case with everyone.

There are also great options on line – search for online yoga classes, and a plethora of options will pop up. YouTube.com has the ever-popular Yoga with Adriene series. And Silver Sneakers has a 7 minute yoga workout for seniors that is easy to start with. If you prefer the analog experience, many books are on Amazon or the shelves of your local library. Read reviews to find a good fit for you.

Whichever way you do it, just do it! Move, stretch and circulate.

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Yoga for Transformation

After my very first yoga class the instructor asked me how I liked it. I honestly got tears in my eyes when replying “I loved it.” The words I used to describe that first class included “relaxing” and “calming.” Those word are accurate as far as they go, but beginning and sustaining a yoga practice has subtle yet profound effects that go deeper than those terms can describe.

I was hooked immediately, and continued taking classes from that instructor for years. At some point I began reading books about yoga, perusing the shelves of my local library and buying books online.

I wasn’t even really sure what I was looking for in those books. Information about poses? Advice on sustaining my practice and improving my technique? Something was going on at a very deep level with this yoga stuff, and I wasn’t sure what it was. Some inkling was stirring the soul, and I needed to put my finger on just what was going on.

One of the first books I read was Insight Yoga by Sarah Powers. In her introduction she speaks elegantly about yoga as a path for self-transformation. But transformation into what? Where? I believe it was Pattabhi Jois who wrote that once you start asking these questions, the transformation is already under way. Just keep coming back to the mat. “Do your practice and all is coming.” All what?

The closest thing to a real answer that I got during this stage was from a self-published e-book 21 Things to Know Before Starting an Ashtanga Practice by practitioner Claudia Azula Altucher. She describes the path as beginning with yoga as a way to cleanse and energize our systems, leading to a healthier body which helps the mind be more focused and efficient. This leads to clarity around our current life and relationships, which in turn leads to better decision making in our lives. This ultimately leads to better living conditions and better energy surrounding us.

So I kept coming back to the mat, not sure exactly where I was going but knowing I must continue. One of the results has been an increase in compassion for those around me. A few days ago I was walking to my parked car and passed a women sitting in another car who was wiping away tears. I paused for a moment in my thoughts and offered her a silent prayer for comfort, peace of mind, and the wish for good news to come her way. Instead of judging others I pause and offer understanding for lives and circumstances that I cannot know or comprehend.

For me, yoga is a physical practice that improves strength, flexibility and stamina. It is also a practice for the mind and soul. Calming, relaxing and stress relieving in ways that must be experienced to be understood. Ready for relief? Just keep coming back to the mat.

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Palm Over Palm Over Heart

One of my favorite yoga teachers, Dr. Kerri Johnson, often uses the instruction to place palm over palm over heart. This cue takes place once at the beginning of class after a brief warmup and before we begin sun salutations. We pause, take a breath, and set an intention while placing palm over palm over heart. She also gives this cue another time or two during class transitions or as we settle into final relaxation. We take a slow, deep breath, reconnect to our body and remember our intention.

Connecting to Joy

Placing palm over palm over heart while breathing deeply and connecting to my body and intention became a comforting mini ritual that quietly made its way into my life off the mat. Placing my palm over my heart started as an unconscious action that eventually I became aware I was doing periodically. I also noticed that when I did this, it was while I was doing something that brought me joy.

I began to connect to the action, noticing when I did it and in response to what action or situation.

Most recently, I placed my palm over my heart when adding garlic and curry powder to onions browning in oil. The smell was divine. I was preparing nourishing food for me and my husband, and it was a cozy winter afternoon in my kitchen. It brought back a feeling of many other times I received joy from the sacred act of preparing nourishing food. I noticed the deep sense of satisfaction I got imparting love and the nourishment of good food to my family.

I noticed other times as well. I placed my hand over my heart when spending time with my grandsons, watching their wide-eyed real-time take on the world. When I sat outside on a beautiful afternoon watching the birds enjoy my bird feeder. When walking on the beach in the sun. When listening to live music that I loved.

But first, you have to find your joy

This small connection to myself reminds me to take the time to notice what gives me joy. I spent many years ignoring what gave me joy, with the vague notion that my joy was irrelevant, a luxury I could not afford. I spent those years raising children, building a career, sustaining a marriage and paying bills. At some point I stopped long enough to ask myself what brought me joy. I didn’t immediately know the answer. It took many months, years even, to reconnect to my inner compass and notice where my joy lived.

Reconnecting to your joy is like going on an archeological expedition, digging through years of rock-hard armor surrounding the tender underlying heart. I noticed that much of what brought me joy were things I had connected to as a child or teenager, and that those things were still there, buried deep inside. Bringing them back to the surface, exposing them to light and dusting them off is a most satisfying endeavor, and helps bring your life into alignment and balance.

Whatever brings you joy, connect to it. Make time for it, nurture it, embrace it. But first, you have to find it. Feel it in your heart, with your hand, and bring it into the light.

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Meditation in Five Minutes a Day?

You can hardly get through the day lately without hearing something about the benefits of mindfulness or meditation. The definition of mindfulness I reference is this one: “the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment.” Easier said than done.

How Much Time Do You Really Need?

Personally, I relied on yoga as a form of meditative practice for a decade. Actual sitting meditation came in fits and starts, as I could never stick with it for long. Until, that is, I read 8 Minute Meditation by Victor Davich.

The simple premise and helpful guided practices in this quick read made mediation accessible. Trying to find the time, presence and strong back needed to sit for twenty minutes at a time was overwhelming. But eight mintues? That was doable.

Then life got complicated as it often does, and even eight minutes seemed too much.

So, I ratcheted it down to five minutes a day. I made this last-ditch effort to instill a daily meditation practice after listening to a Yoga International podcast wherein editor Kat Hedburg said that meditating for five minutes a day was better than meditating for an hour once a week. I gave it a shot. And for the first time ever I have sustained a daily meditation practice.

Mindful Alternatives to Meditation

Will it extend to a ten-minute or twenty-minute daily practice? I don’t know, and I’m not beating myself up about it. Instead I’m patting myself on the back for the accomplishment I have made maintaining a 5 -minute daily practice, and we’ll see how it goes.

For those who cannot or will not commit to a sitting practice (trust me, I can relate), I refer you to Mark Sisson of MarksDailyApple.com for great ideas on alternatives to seated meditation. Mark’s theory is that meditation is our substitute for the mindfulness our ancestors practiced naturally as a result of much more time spent outdoors in nature. Accordingly, several of his alternatives to mediation are outdoor activities.

I have to agree with Mark. When I think of long lazy days spent on the beach, I think of how I tune in completely to the sand, sun, horizon, and the sound of the waves crashing on the beach in steady rhythm. Paddling down the Itchetucknee River tunes me in to the leaves rustling in the trees, the myriad birds crossing my path, and the mesmerizing clear blue water.

But when these activities cannot fit in to my 16 hour days, then meditation it will have to be. And five minutes is better than none.

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