Tag Archives: mental-health

New Year’s Postcard from Retreat

Fuzzy iPhone picture of beautifully dramatic oak trees, garlanded with Spanish moss, at Marywood Retreat Center

Fuzzy iPhone picture of beautifully dramatic oak trees, garlanded with Spanish moss, at Marywood Retreat Center

Happy New Year, friends!

It’s  January 1, 2013, and I couldn’t not write today.

I’m on a silent Buddhist retreat in Northern Florida- it’s a sunny and breezy 60-degree sort of day- and I am out on a dock overlooking the St John’s River. A seagull is looking plumply at me. I am full of white chocolate-macadamia nut cookies and I am pleasantly drowsy, which I hope to shake before this afternoon’s mediation session.

So I’m not sure whether or not I’m really breaking the spirit of silence by writing this blog post- I think if I do this instead of journaling, it’s okay, provided that I do this as honestly as though it were my journal and you weren’t going to read it. I’ll do my best.

Waves are lapping, the dock is gently shifting, and two Minnesota natives are sunbathing nearby- I forget, sometimes, how different it is to live in Florida, where, for most people, it’s harder NOT to get a tan than it is to get one.

I’m having an overwhelmingly positive experience, despite my initial reservations. I was lucky enough to be able to attend this retreat on work-study, or it would not have been a possibility. You may recall from my last post that the few weeks leading up to this one have been really crazed with work and stress. I brought a lot of that emotion with me and it has taken a few days to really relax into being here- into remembering that even if I am working, even if I am busy, I can still be relaxed.

The style of mediation that I practice is shamatha, sometimes translated as calm-abiding. Sometime in the past few months, although I continued to meditate, I lost some of the sense of how it can be a metaphor for the rest of my life. The idea in shamatha meditation is that you meditate “without meditating,” by allowing things to be just as they are and just bringing your awareness to them.

{Please note that this is not an instruction and possibly not even a good explanation, and you should absolutely read The Joy of Living by Mingyur Rinpoche for a brilliant introduction}

2012 was an enormous year. I’m going to indulge myself here by recapping- you’re welcome to skip it, but since this is in lieu of a journal entry, I feel entitled. This year I: completed yoga teaching certification, quit my banking career, halved my income, got married, husband lost job, started working for 6 different people (studio owners and business owners), taught a total of 461 hours of yoga, finally quit taking anti-depressants (after 15+ years), helped plan a Buddhist retreat (which I’d never attended), became a chicken owner. Almost every day has been a chance to live outside of my comfort zone.

2013 is, so far, no different. I’m on this retreat, practicing silence, meditating 4+ hours per day,  and feeling an overwhelming sweep of emotions. Gratitude. Love. Fear, excitement. I am practicing resting in each of these awkward moments, feeling the discomfort and living through it, and then watching as the emotion changes to something else.

I woke up early this morning- couldn’t sleep anymore, had to move! I almost ran through the dark, couldn’t wait- I took my overindulged (the food is great here) and sore (sitting for so long is not easy) body to my mat and somehow I found the courage to do something else I’ve never done- a mala of Sun Salutations. That’s 108 of them, not all of them pretty, some of them sloppy, and I think I did more like 112, cause I lost count and made myself do a few extra just in case (never did care for numbers, sorry, Banking Career).

As I moved, I was aware of how my body felt, how my mind experienced the sensations of practice, and how the experience changed. Emotions, judgments, ideas, were born and died in the space of seconds. And I kept moving, kept practicing, and look: here I am. A living, breathing, metaphor, for this life, never easy, always beautiful, a life that has me by turns feeling like a proud party host- come in, let me show you how gorgeous everything is!- and then again, at times, more like a sullen teenager who wants nothing more than to crawl under the covers and die of her own misery. That’s life. Can I rest in, relax in, the weirdness of it all? I’m trying.

I’ll leave you with a beautiful aspiration from this morning’s practice- what more fitting way to open a new year?

Dedication from Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life By Shantideva

May all beings everywhere

Plagued by sufferings of body and mind

Obtain an ocean of happiness and joy

By virtue of my merits.

May no living creature suffer,

Commit evil or ever fall ill.

May no one be afraid or belittled,

With a  mind weighed down by depression.

May the blind see forms,

And the deaf hear sounds.

May those whose bodies are worn with toil

Be restored on finding repose.

May the naked find clothing,

The hungry find food.

May the thirsty find water

And delicious drinks.

May the poor find wealth,

Those weak with sorrow find joy.

May the forlorn find hope,

Constant happiness and prosperity.

May all who are ill or injured

Quickly be freed from their ailments.

Whatever diseases there are in the world,

May these never occur again.

May the frightened cease to be afraid

And those bound be freed

May the powerless find power

And may people think of benefiting each other

For as long as space endures

And as long as living beings remain,

Until then may I too abide

To dispel the misery of the world.

How to Establish (and Maintain) a Home Yoga Practice: A Practical Guide

Your furry friends may be quite helpful in your practice at home.

This guide comes from my own efforts, some more successful than others, in putting together a home yoga practice. Like anything worth doing, it is a bit of work- but you’ll love the benefits. Enjoy!

1. Create your space. The first step in establishing a home practice is to work out the logistics- where can you comfortably practice? You may need to exercise some creativity and move furniture to make it happen. Ideally, it’ll be a place in your home that is quiet and free of distractions. If it’s a space that you can dedicate to the practice- even better. Add a little decor to make it special for you. A meaningful knick-knack, flowers, candles- whatever makes it your sacred space. However, if this is not a possibility for you, give yourself permission to make it special on the fly as you unroll your mat- remembering that this is your time to connect with your innermost self. (Also: bonus karma points, you can pat yourself on the back for not needing things like candles and flowers to make your practice space sacred. Nice job!)

Props ‘n’ stuff: Make sure you have a decent mat. You may not want to spend a lot of money right off the bat on a Manduka or Jade mat (both of which I do recommend, when you’re ready to make a long-term commitment) but please make sure that you don’t hate your mat- if you’re slipping, or it’s stinky, or it hurts- spend a little more on a better one. Props such as blocks, bolsters, and a strap are also great, but you can live without them for a while if needed. Have a clock or a timer handy. I’m also a fan of having a portable iPhone speaker/dock in your practice space so you can play music or listen to a podcast. But DO turn on Airplane mode- you don’t want to get a phone call or text in the middle of your practice.

2. Now that you’ve established your practice space, it’s time to Create a Structure. Part of the charm of going to a studio or a class at a gym is that this part of the work is already done for you- you just have to show up. You can do this for yourself, and set yourself up for success, with just a bit of initial planning. Look at your calendar- when can you expect yourself to practice, and for how long? Give yourself a reasonable schedule to start- maybe 1-2 times per week for 30 minutes. While you may want to establish a vigorous daily practice, setting your expectations too high at the beginning may lead to frustration, disappointment, or burnout. Commit the time to yourself as you would to your partner, your employer, or your children- write it in your planner, schedule it in your phone, and then show up. Once a week (I like Sundays, just because) you can re-evaluate the plan for the following week.

While you’re writing, make a list of the positive benefits of yoga, and why you want to make it a part of your life. Your list might include stress management, strength-building, greater health, increased flexibility, a closer connection to your inner self, or even just that you deserve to do something for YOU. It might feel a little silly to write these things down- but please do it anyway. Seeing these things in black and white can be a tremendous motivator. If it’s practical, place this list where you can see it frequently and be reminded of your commitment- your bathroom mirror, your fridge, whatever works for you.

When creating your structure, it’s also important to decide how you will practice. You may  want to listen to a podcast one day, and focus on hip openers another day (Don’t panic! There’s more on “what to do” below). Whatever you decide, make that part of your schedule and your commitment. If you show up to practice and don’t know what to do, it’s easy to walk away. Having a format to follow will give you a greater chance of success at sticking with it.

3. Figure Out What To Do. When I first started my own away-from-the-studio time, this was the hardest for me- I wanted so badly for my home practice to be a beautiful 90 minute class that challenged and invigorated and taught me new things about myself… and yet I had no idea how to make that happen. Luckily, we live in the Internet age. Give yourself permission to use technology to your advantage:

  • Podcasts: There are some awesome (free) podcasts available on iTunes- you may have to listen to a few before you find one that speaks to you, but the price is absolutely right. I can recommend Elsie’s Yoga Kula and Dave Farmar– they’re both pretty great at cueing, so you’re able to follow along without a visual.
  • Streaming video online sites: these work well if you have a laptop or iPad- a friend of mine uses Do Yoga With Me, which is free. There are some great podcasts/videos available from Yoga Journal at no charge as well. If you don’t mind paying, I’m a fan of YogaGlo– it’s reasonably priced and boasts some big names for high-quality instruction. There are many, many more sites, and most of them are pretty cheap to try out. I’ve found that I can learn something from even my least favorite class.
  • Books, flashcards, magazines- Yoga Journal and Yoga International both offer at-home sequences as part of their magazine, and that’s a great starting point. There are all kinds of books available- and if you’ve got a library card, even better!
  • DVDs- I started my own yoga practice with DVDs, and there are a lot of great titles out there to choose from. This is a little more of an investment, and if you are bored by repetition, may not be the way to go- but if you’re looking for a structured practice, it may work for you.
Over time, with consistency, you’ll begin to tune in to your inner teacher, discovering that you can practice without these tools. You may come to your mat and find that your body’s craving a certain pose, or sequence- or maybe just some deep breaths. This is a good thing, and something to enjoy- but until it happens, allow yourself to use whatever means necessary to help you.
One last note: when crunched for time, it may be tempting to skip Savasana or a resting pose- please make sure that you include at least 5 minutes at the end of your time in order to absorb the benefits of the practice. Cut something else if you have to, but this is really important. Really.

4. Be Kind to Yourself. A few notes on compassion:

  • So you wanted to practice for 90 minutes but you got up late and now you only have 30- don’t beat yourself up about it. Treat yourself as you would your best friend- give yourself credit for showing up at all. Maybe you got to your mat and your iPhone wasn’t charged so you couldn’t listen to the podcast and all you could think of doing was a few Sun Salutations and then you got kind of frustrated and laid down in Savasana for a while- that’s okay. That’s yoga too. You showed up. Nice job.
  • If, like some people I know… (okay, I’m talking about myself)… you tend to over-do: please, listen to your body. If you’ve done three challenging practices in a row over the past three days- your body needs time to recuperate. Take a day off or find a more restorative/Yin sequence.
  • If, like some other people I know… (yep, still talking about myself)… you are capable of talking yourself out of your scheduled practice for whatever reason- be kind to yourself by at least giving yourself the chance to practice. A wonderful friend of mine once introduced me to the 10-minute concept. If you think you’re too tired, or you just don’t want to do something, promise yourself you’ll try for at least 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, let yourself give up, if you still want to. Spoiler alert: you probably won’t.
  • Reward yourself: give yourself occasional pats on the back for sticking with your plan. After a milestone (a month, two months, whatever) treat yourself to something special. Maybe a new outfit (I’m looking at you, be present) or a new mat- or a trip to your favorite studio. It’s possible you don’t need motivation in this regard- bonus karma points for you again! But, for the rest of us, when starting a new habit, rewards can be a great motivator.

5. Invest in the (at-least-occasional) class with a certified teacher. Full disclosure: I am a yoga teacher, but I promise this is not completely self-serving. Yoga, like any physical discipline, can lead to injury if not practiced properly. This is not to say that you shouldn’t do it on your own at all- there is tremendous benefit in a consistent home practice. However, the experience of receiving personalized cues, adjustments, and assists is invaluable to guide you in practicing safely. Additionally, it saves time in un-learning unproductive habits. (I’m still struggling with a little headstand tic I created for myself several years ago).

Find a good studio with a teacher who will give mindful adjustments and detailed cues. The best teachers will also be happy to talk to you about any concerns or problems you may be experiencing in your home practice, so this is a great opportunity to get individualized advice.

Finally, from a social aspect- many students also find that it is invigorating to supplement their home practice with classroom time. Connecting with community is an important part of the yoga experience, and not easily replicated online.

If you’re looking for more reading on this topic, I recommend two great articles that you may find helpful: Kara-Leah Grant’s Elephant Journal piece on “10 Tips & Tricks for Establishing a Regular Home Yoga Practice”, and Judith Hanson Lasater’s “Bring Your Practice Home” on YogaJournal.com.

I’d love to hear from you about your own challenges or experiences with your home practice- please email me or leave a comment below.