Yoga is Free!

Yoga is Free

I went on my first yoga retreat in the 1990s, to a somewhat stoic place in the majestic Berkshire Mountains. At the time, I was a recent college graduate who earned little money working at a shelter for women experiencing homelessness. Yet, through yoga all things seemed possible — not just travel to not so far away places, but also a deeper sense of connection to my purpose and desires.

Today, about twenty years later, I have mixed feelings about the growth of yoga in American society. While its now commonplaceness makes it, in some respects, more accessible to people in multiple life spectra through proximity, it has also become a huge industry. Like its sister mindfulness practice meditation, yoga also has, to some extent, become an elitist practice that makes the uninitiated feel uncomfortable and excluded through profuse use of Sanskrit without adequate translation, expensive accessories, and the removal (disconnection) of spirituality or even personal transcendence for the less spiritually inclined from its teachings.

Because I have practiced yoga for more than 20 years, to one extent or another, I find myself on many mailing lists for products and services related to mindfulness practices. One such mailing list, which thankfully I have been removed from — probably because I was found to be an unwilling customer — was a meditation supplies catalog. Now, I understand that there are many specialty items that can be used to enhance meditation practice and that these items aren’t found in every corner store. Yet, seeing all of these things for sale in one non-renewable energy guzzling mail order place signified to me a shift in understanding yoga and meditation as a space for commerce in addition to a space for connection and transformation.

This shift is a divergence from the true meaning of mindfulness practice. Yoga is free. Meditation is free. They are practices that we perform do at any moment, not avenues to promote consumption. They are about connection — both inward and to all living beings, an integration of our minds, bodies, and spirits both individually and collectively. Yoga and meditation are immediately available to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Good yoga teachers are wise sages. Like artists, they inspire beauty, bring out the best in us, and build community. We should support them, including with our precious resources, because they add value to our lives. We should also support people who create safe spaces for us to practice yoga and meditation. And yes, we should support the companies that provide products and services to complement our practice. We can practice awareness by noticing when we use our mindfulness practices as opportunities to overconsume and the ways that we unintentionally exclude people, people who might so greatly benefit from this knowledge and participation, by how we talk about and present opportunities to practice yoga and meditation. The intent of yoga and meditation has traditionally been to unite, not to divide.

Like punk rock, all good things eventually become commoditized. Such was the argument made — not about punk rock specifically but about music in general — by political economist Jacques Attali in his awesome book Noise: The Political Economy of Music. We can resist this tendency by focusing on what is most important to our yoga and meditation practice – awareness, rootedness, connection, unity, and well-being.

Autumn Routines

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The first day of school was always a day met, for me, with both eager anticipation and deep despair. While it was a joy to get dressed up, as we did in those days, head out early on brisk mornings, and get back into a routine it also marked the end of carefree summer days.

Autumn has been a bit late this year. More than two days this past week have been in the 70s, an anomaly given the typical continental weather in the Pennsylvania community where I live. As we have sadly realized, global warming is throwing off the delicate balance of nature in so many ways. Although I admit I have enjoyed not wearing a jacket for just a few days longer, I am terrified for our planet, for her sustainability and viability in years that will stretch out beyond my own.

Despite the warm weather, I have been reminiscing about those early fall days of my youth, and remembering how this season compels me to ritually adopt certain routines that for some reason seem most welcome at this time of year. Like the giant trees that gently allow their leaves to return to the earth, I am letting go of things that have an expired meaningful purpose in my life. Things that are unnecessary, a nuisance. Internally, I am letting go of thoughts and feelings that weigh me down, allowing them to fall away from my life. After an almost too comfortable summer, I am re-establishing habits to improve my health and well-being. Life feels crisp, fresh, and breezy.

Autumn is now about halfway gone, and soon winter will arrive. Cold, snuggly days sipping warmth and longing for sunshine. I’m clearing my space to prepare for the pristine emptiness of our next earthly phase.

Three Daily Rituals to Restore Wellbeing

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As a person who all too often feels overwhelmed with the stresses of everyday life, I have found it helpful to incorporate three rituals into my daily routine: cleansing; stretching; and nourishing. When I consistently integrate these three simple rituals, I feel refreshed, renewed, and restored.

I usually begin my day with a fairly ordinary cleansing ritual, that of the shower. As the warm, soapy water cascades down my awakening body, I feel a sense of purity which allows me to enter the day untainted by whatever may have happened in the past. About every other day I head to the gym, where I release my worries and other toxins through the sweet sweat that trickles down from my brow. When I feel a great physical or emotional heaviness, cleansing through a one day juice fast or three week regimen of only whole foods makes me feel lighter and more free. Deep, intentional breathing is another means of cleansing our systems, and taking in the air from the seaside or deep within the forest has an unmatched healing quality.

My every other day visits to the gym are not only cleansing, they also provide me with an opportunity to move and stretch my body in new ways. Yoga and walking in-between further provide me with the stretch that I need. In addition to stretching myself physically, I try to expand myself intellectually at least once a day. I do this by trying new things, reading, and pushing myself to surpass my goals. Stretching rituals multiply the possibilities in my life and contribute to my continued personal growth.

My third daily wellness ritual is nourishing my body, mind, heart, and soul. I do this by eating healthy foods, exposing myself to enlightened ideas, practicing excellent self-care, indulging my desires, and planting seeds of hope through my work in the community. Nourishment provides me with the sustenance I need to pursue and fulfill all of my aspirations.

These three rituals — cleansing, stretching, and nourishing — serve as the foundation for my personal wellness practice. By making them a part of my day, every day, I am able to live a full and vibrant life.

I’ll Sleep On It (Or At Least I’ll Try)

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I have always had a precarious relationship with sleep. The bliss of restful sleep has eluded me since I broke a dependency on a life saving opiate-laced allergy medicine after more than eleven years of daily use, at age twelve. From there, I turned to massive doses of coffee to stay awake which only made it more difficult to settle down at the end of a long day. Not only do I have difficulty falling and staying asleep, which is no doubt influenced by anxiety, I also occasionally suffer from sleep paralysis — a terrifying state of affairs during which I either feel like I am already dead or as though death would be a welcome relief from the terror.

I have tried all kinds of things over the years to help me sleep better — melatonin, tart cherry juice (which contains melatonin), caffeine elimination, extra exercise, light filtering, screen time reduction, meditation, fresh air, and long rides in the car. I have also tried over the counter sleep aids, thought I haven’t for at least 15 years, and for a few years I took Elavil every night which really, really put me to sleep. Of all of those things, nothing sends me into a restful sleep like a five hour journey on the highways and byways of Pennsylvania. Thank goodness I am able to postpone sleep until after the trip is over.

I also almost never remember my dreams, perhaps just four a five a year. Knowing my imagination, I am sure there are quite a few that would be worth remembering. This is a rich, vivid area of my life in which I wish I could more intimately engage.

Sleep is super important. Nothing restores and refreshes our minds and bodies like deep, restful sleep. I love the feeling of awakening in the morning feeling fully rested, peaceful, and alive — a joy I unfortunately only know a few times a year. Naps are a wonderful delight. I don’t take them nearly often enough. I usually feel more rested after an impromptu one hour nap than I do after tossing in turning in bed all night.

Sleep is easily taken for granted; I know that I am guilty of this. It is something that everybody does nearly every day, so we just expect that it will happen for us too — even when it doesn’t, or when the quality of our sleep is negligible. Yet, sleep is so fundamental to the way we function throughout every moment of the day — it influences our mood, our reflexes, our cognition, our metabolic function, and just about every other aspect of our lives. Perhaps nothing is so important to our physical and emotional health.

If you have any ideas for sleeping well or would like to share a resource related to sleep, please do so in the comments below!

Chillax Like a Zen Master Kitty Cat

I went to the doctor today for what thankfully turned out to be a pesky little virus. As has happened in the past, my blood pressure was a bit elevated. I have intermittently experienced high blood pressure since I was a teenager, when during a hospitalization I was monitored daily for what was reading in the 150s over the 110s.

My gut tells me that my on the high side blood pressure is a result of my reaction to stress — and even if it isn’t, stress certainly doesn’t help my blood pressure relax. Lucky for me, I share my home with three cats who, on the side, serve as humble Zen masters who constantly remind me how to respond to my environment in a healthier way.

First of all, Cookie, Pebbles and Bam Bam don’t hold a grudge. They can’t help but react, rather than gently respond, to the subtle annoyances in life — like when the cute-cute face does not immediately result in a treat. Yet moments later, they are purring, snuggling, and reclining belly up in close proximity to their treat stingy human friends.

Resting, playing, and enjoying the moment are my cat friends’ priorities, not something they try to squeeze in when they can find the time. It is simply a way of life for them. In addition, they appreciate the small things in life — like a squirrel climbing up a pole or rekindling a relationship with a long-favoured toy. These momentary delights are happily absorbed into their hearts, sustaining their vivid engagement with life.

In the safety and pleasance of my home, with three Zen masters to serve as an example, I should be able to embrace a sense of ease and simplicity at every moment, regardless of the circumstances in which I may be immersed — no matter how disturbing and enduring they may seem. Animals are friends and healers with tremendous wisdom to share.