Taking Care – Of You

Patrick (not his real name) is a student in my Monday after-work yoga class. He’s an earnest guy, hardworking and devoted to his family, just a genuinely nice man with a humble demeanor and ready smile. He’s always expressed great interest in all elements of yoga; he wants to learn about meditation, the chakras, the Yoga Sutras, everything. His curiosity and willingness to try new things inspire me to be a better teacher.

This class is for fellow employees of the corporation where I spend a large chunk of my waking life. It’s an intense, demanding environment, and because of the product we manufacture, perfection is considered a completely reasonable expectation. My goal for this particular group of students is to undo what the workday does to them – they arrive barely breathing with their shoulders tucked under their ears. I know how it is; I work there, too. So, before we begin, I always ask whether anyone has any aches, pains or psychoses we should address in class.

Pushing through pain

Patrick, like so many other people, struggles with back pain, but at first he didn’t talk about it. When he first joined the class, he refused to let his back get in the way of his practice. He embraced every asana, determined to master them. When we sat on the floor for meditation, his tight hips troubled him, but he assumed the cross-legged position anyway. However, after a while I noticed a change: Patrick began to practically limp into class, wincing with pain. In true overachiever fashion, he would soldier through class anyway, always gung-ho to do the most challenging poses possible.

Ardha Chandrasana - Half Moon Pose
Ardha Chandrasana – Half Moon Pose

Once when my back was turned he kicked his leg up into Half Moon Pose, a challenging asana that involves balancing on one leg and bending sideways to place a hand on the floor while lifting the opposite leg parallel to the floor. It’s a really fun pose that makes you feel like you can leap tall buildings, and I teach modifications to make it more accessible to my students. Patrick chose to perform the more difficult variation, which was very bad news for his back. His drive, so essential in his work, was detrimental to his wellbeing.

This event caused Patrick to confess that he had been working tirelessly on renovations to his home to make it ready for his elderly mother who was coming to live with him. Her advanced age and declining health had made it too difficult for her to continue to live alone, so Patrick had been spending his weekends moving furniture, painting, building, improving – and this strenuous work had taken its toll on his back, especially when the Mr. Fix-It weekend was followed by ten hours sitting at a desk the next day. He agreed to my suggestions for modifications in yoga but was resolute about his home improvement projects. And so, no matter how gentle or therapeutic Monday’s yoga class may be, it is not enough to counter the abuse inflicted the weekend before. At least I can keep an eye on him during class to make sure he doesn’t overdo it on my watch.

I need some TLC too

I think a lot of us are just like Patrick. At least, I know I am. I woke up yesterday morning with a whopping migraine, the kind that amplifies every sound, nauseates me and distorts my view of the world – everything is too bright and a little bit blurry. There was a time when I had these nightmare headaches for days on end, week after week, but mercifully it’s been much better lately. Now I only get one every month or so, with much less severity. Until yesterday.

I might have seen it coming. My job has been hectic and exhausting lately. Travel always wears me out, and over the last three months I’ve visited eight cities. My sleep schedule and normally healthy diet have gone out the window, and my usually regular yoga practice has spent some time out the window, too. And of course, the holiday rush has added its own dimension to the insanity. Yoga teacher that I am, you might expect me to know exactly how to nurture myself when I am fatigued to this degree.

You would be wrong. Well, not exactly wrong; I know how to take care of myself. The problem is that I, like my friend Patrick, don’t always do it. I’ll admit that when I am feeling depleted, I often choose to run on fumes rather than refuel. After all, the whole world would implode if I took a day off.

Some nights I crawl through my front door, drop my bag and collapse on the sofa, swimming in fatigue so heavy that even my hair is tired. But five minutes later, I’m in the kitchen throwing dinner together, feeding the dogs, opening the mail and running a load of laundry at the same time.

Don’t be impressed. This characteristic is not a good thing.

I’m not sure how I became such a martyr, except that I come from an impressive line of long-suffering Sicilian women. Plus most of my schoolteachers were nuns. In any case, I find it easy to talk to my students about self-care but hard to practice it myself. Our driven, competitive, achievement-oriented society seems to reward this kind of behavior, and it isn’t doing us any good.

Think about it. Most people would never treat a friend the way they treat their own bodies. You’re tired? You’re hungry? Too bad – we have work to do! Say that to a friend and you won’t have that friend for long. But we do it to ourselves all the time.

Well, I’m learning that my body won’t stand for that nonsense too long. It rebels. If I ignore the signals it gives me by pushing through headaches, working when I’m sick, etc., my body retaliates by shutting down and forcing me to rest. That’s what happened yesterday with the monster migraine. I was pretty much down for the count and had no choice but to give in. Not surprisingly, I feel better today.

Ahimsa means don’t hurt anybody, including you

And here’s the yoga lesson for today. Ahimsa is the first of the five principles of yama, which are yoga’s ethical precepts. It’s a Sanskrit word that means non-violence. I am continually fascinated by the similarities in the world’s religions. Right living is the same in any language and whatever your conception of God.

Anyway, the concept of ahimsa is often a new yogi’s introduction to this side of yoga. It sometimes comes up when discussing vegetarianism, as many yoga practitioners choose to abstain from meat for compassionate reasons, but diet is not the only ahimsa application. It’s choosing kindness toward all beings, even the ones that get on your nerves. It’s treating things gently – slamming doors is not a demonstration of ahimsa.

Beating yourself up, physically or emotionally, is violence toward oneself. If we cannot treat ourselves with kindness, how can we extend it to anyone else?

Mini-meditation

Whatever you might be tackling right now, whether it’s housework, studying, shopping or anything else that feels like work – pause. Bring your full awareness to your breath. Breathe deeply and notice the way cool air flows into your nostrils and warm air flows out. Allow your abdomen to expand with each inhale, and as you exhale, try to exhale a little more slowly, more completely. Imagine that every inhale fills your body with soft healing light, and every exhale sweeps away all tension, pain and worry. Continue this breath for a few minutes and notice the immediate response of your nervous system.

Slow down. Close your eyes and allow your shoulders to lower and your shoulder blades to slide down your back. Feel happy to be alive, right now, in this moment. Soften your jaw and that little line between your eyebrows and think about what you could do for yourself that would bring you peace. Maybe it’s indulging in a long soak in the tub, lighting candles or listening to soft music – or all three. (That’s what I’m going to do.) Add this pleasurable activity to your to-do list and do it today. It is every bit as important as all those other tasks on your list, possibly more important. You are not a machine. And even if you were, all machines need maintenance sometimes.

Know that by taking care of yourself, you take care of everyone else in your life because you have more to give. Find the peace within and it always radiates outward. It can’t be contained.

OM Shanthi. Peace.

 

 

 

Interview with a Monkey Mind

My mind has a mind of its own.

It’s good to know I’m not alone in this. Apparently it’s been a common struggle throughout the ages, so we can’t even blame cell phones and video games for our gnat-sized attention spans. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, an ancient text on the art and science of yoga, we learn yoga’s true purpose, and no, it’s not to fit in Lulumon pants. In Book 1, Sutra 2, the sage Patanjali tells us that the purpose of yoga is to still the waves of the mind: Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah.

Chimp 3 (1)

This tendency of the mind to run from one thing to the next is often described as the monkey mind. If you suddenly conjured up a mental image of a frolicking chimpanzee jumping on your bed, screaming happily while throwing your good china against the wall, you get the idea.

My mind can be like that. Through years of practicing and teaching yoga and meditation, I’ve made a little progress on the path, but I’ll confess that some days are much better than others.

I had a talk with my monkey mind last weekend when it interrupted me with a stream of nonsense the minute I sat down to meditate. Here’s how it went:

Me (establishing a comfortable, cross-legged position on my cushion): OMMM…

I felt good. The candles on my altar were flickering softly.

Monkey Mind: Hey, it’s cold in here!

Me (sitting a little taller and drawing my shawl more snugly around me): Focus on the breath, sweetheart. Inhale deeply. Exhale completely.

It is always best to treat the mind gently and lovingly, rather than trying to force it to bend to your will. I managed a few slow, deep breaths to settle myself and began to feel more in control. Then I let my breath return to normal and tried to focus my mind on it.

Monkey Mind: My nose itches.

Me: Shhh. Back to the breath. (Inhale, exhale, repeat.)

Monkey Mind: I said, my nose itches!Bunny (1)

Without my permission, my nose started to twitch like a rabbit’s. I will not scratch my nose, I told myself, and then, thankfully, the itch disappeared. I returned my attention to my breath for about 30 seconds.

Sri Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Integral Yoga® (my yoga), outlines three steps in dealing with distracting thoughts during meditation:

  1. Treat the thought like an uninvited guest and just ignore it. Maybe it’ll go away.
  2. Watch the thought in a detached manner and let it pass. Sometimes, like a naughty child when a parent enters the room, a wild thought will settle down when it realizes it’s been caught.
  3. Negotiate with the thought. Offer it an appointment with you later, after you finish your practice.

I tried diligently to employ these steps.

Monkey Mind: What’s that noise?

Me (to myself): Ignore the monkey. Maybe it’ll go away. (Step One)

Monkey Mind: What’s that noise? Is it outside? Can we look out the window?

Me: I’m ignoring you.

Monkey Mind: I think someone’s at the door.

I caught myself just before I opened my eyes toward the window and managed to return to witnessing the breath for about 15 seconds this time.

Monkey Mind: My foot is falling asleep. We need to get up.

Me: Not yet.

Step Two involves witnessing the thought without becoming attached to it. So I spent a moment listening to my mind whine about my foot in a detached way, much like you would watch raindrops slide down your windowpane. Eventually the whining stopped and things were quiet for few minutes.

Monkey Mind: Hey, you left those shirts in the washing machine.

At this point, I wondered if I was wasting my time. Maybe I should just get up, I thought. I have a lot to do…

Me (to myself): No, we are not getting up. We are staying right here and we are going to finish our practice.

Monkey Mind: I am SO uncomfortable! Please, please, uncross my legs! Do you think we can order a pizza? What do you want to do today? I really like butterflies. Did you call your sister? I want to go to the movies! Can we? Huh? Huh?

Me: All right! I give up! Why can’t you let me be still for five minutes?

For a moment, Monkey Mind seemed surprised by the outburst. Then:

Monkey Mind: It’s my job to generate thoughts. If I stopped, you might fire me!

Me: It’s your job to do as I ask you, not to turn my head into a three-ring circus. How do you expect us to accomplish anything if we can’t cooperate with each other?

Monkey Mind: I’m only trying to help. I have lots of good ideas.

Me: You do have good ideas sometimes. But I haven’t heard a single one from you today. You know that this is important to me. It takes focus and concentration to meditate. I can’t focus if you won’t. Don’t you want to get stronger and more peaceful?

Monkey Mind: So you don’t want to go to the movies?

Me: I’ll make a deal with you. Let me finish my practice in peace, and then we’ll go to the movies. We might even order a pizza! (Step Three: negotiate)

Monkey Mind: I want spinach and mushroom!

Me: Okay, spinach and mushroom. Now let’s get back to work.

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Life Lessons from my Herb Garden

Here’s what my herb garden looked like this morning, after a long summer of perfect herb-growing weather and no gardener. I was feeling ambitious in March as I selected all these plants in their tiny biodegradable pots. The reality is that my poor garden has been on its own for the past four months.

Herb gardening can be fun. For a minimal investment of time, money and space, you get fragrant, interesting plants that attract bees and butterflies to the garden and make you look like a chef on the Food Network. The rosemary plant is a favorite. My Sicilian heritage predisposes me to a great passion for cooking, plus I love rubbing my hands on this plant and then inhaling the piney fragrance on my palms. The plant itself has grown into an impressive shrub and taken over just about half the space in my tiny garden. What I didn’t know until I got started this morning was that this beautiful specimen, growing unchecked, obliterated the stevia, the marigolds, and something else I don’t recognize anymore.

Beyond the rosemary monster is the basil. Back in the spring, I got carried away at the garden center and bought three plants. I really like pesto! The basil plants did not disappoint. They basked in the Savannah sun, smiled up at our afternoon thunderstorms and thrived. Then they trampled on the sweet English lavender plant I foolishly established as their neighbor.

How often have you heard, “You reap what you sow?” Gardens often serve as a metaphor for life, and no wonder. It’s an easy comparison to make. Lives, like gardens, need careful cultivation to produce the best fruit. As long as we are diligently pulling the weeds of vice, our garden can thrive. Let those weeds take over and they choke out your virtuous flowers. You can even look in the Bible for a garden metaphor. In one of his parables, Jesus likened his followers to different kinds of soil with varying levels of receptivity to the seed of his teachings.

Back to my herb garden: I spent the better part of my day pulling weeds and harvesting a mountain of basil and rosemary. All the while, I wondered what on earth I was going to do with all this bounty and reflected on what this particular plot says about its slack gardener.

Maybe the overgrown mess represents the issues in my life I try to ignore. Every single morning when I opened the back door to let my dogs out I saw this jungle in the making, and every single day I thought, I need to harvest some of that basil and pull those weeds. But I didn’t. It occurred to me that I’ve been neglecting a couple of other matters in remarkably similar fashion. Not surprisingly, they’re growing a little wild, too, like that paperwork I haven’t felt like addressing or the phone calls I need to make. Worrying over my procrastination is starting to wear the edges of my conscience a little thin.

The real lesson could be in what’s left of the lavender plant. Lavender is my favorite smell in the whole world, especially in its natural state. So if the lavender was important to me, why was I so careless with it? Why, when it started to cower in the presence of the basil bully, didn’t I come to its rescue and either cut that basil down to size and eat it, or move the lavender plant to a more hospitable location? How many times in my day-to-day life am I careless with important matters because I just can’t find the motivation to act?

Hmm. Actually, this little patch of green bears a strong resemblance to the inner workings of my mind.

One of the first exercises when learning to meditate is called witnessing the mind. You sit comfortably with a tall spine, close your eyes, gently focus attention on the breath and just watch the mind’s antics. It doesn’t take long for a distracting thought to pop up. In this practice, you observe this thought in a detached manner without getting involved in it so that it can pass across the sky of your mind like a cloud on a breezy day. For example, if the thought that jumps into your awareness is “Pizza!” you let the pizza fade from your consciousness rather than allow the mind to start choosing toppings. Once the first thought clears out, another follows. This happens over and over. With continued practice, the sweet, silent spaces between distracting thoughts grow longer and longer.

You also gain an awareness of just how much nonsense takes up space in your head every day. Left to its own devices, my mind has a mind of its own; it latches onto random, usually useless, ideas and won’t let go. These thoughts get bigger and bigger, kind of like my basil plants, until they demand that I act on them. They drown out other, worthier thoughts. They multiply and run around my brain like a Jack Russell terrier. Clearly, someone has to be the grown-up here and bring order to this chaos.

This is why it’s called the monkey mind. The purpose of yoga is to train the mind, this powerful, willful child between our ears, so that we can experience real peace in all situations. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? It’s the practice of a lifetime.

Herb Harden After

Here’s an evening update: My garden is tidy, the overgrowth has been removed and I have about two pints of pesto in my freezer, ready to enliven my culinary efforts with a spicy burst of summer flavor any time I want. It’s only September so I probably have one more mini-harvest before my garden goes to sleep for the winter. If only it were this easy to pull all those weeds from the border of my mind.