Monthly Archives: September 2011

Perceptions

By Martha Marcom

From the window of our condo, I can see the new Downtown Hilton Hotel being built. The first thing visible was two toweringly high cranes. From my perspective, when these cranes swung around, they missed the Nationwide Building by mere inches.
Knowing that the Hilton was being squeezed onto a small footprint, I was floored when I did drive down High Street past the construction site, to see how far away from the Nationwide Building the cranes in fact were.

How often do I misjudge things? Often! And how much internal conversation and emotional response then ensues that was all based on erroneous perception?
How often to I misinterpret people? It is easy to misinterpret others’ motivations and pretty hard not to. How many times have we suffered from misunderstanding even those--perhaps especially those--who are near and dear?

This construction project is very tangible and concrete, and I was able to easily see my misperception. I had made an assumption based on what I saw: “Hilton & Nationwide must literally be working closely together on this!”

We make assumptions about the motivations of our family members, our coworkers, complete strangers we see, and people we know by reading about them or seeing them on newscasts. This is natural enough, we need a thesis to operate from; the mind loves to categorize and catalog things. But especially when this comes to our fellow human beings, how may of these assumptions and judgments are misjudgment, prejudice and unexamined reactions? How much do we know of our own motivations and how this is coloring our understanding?

Yoga helps! Yoga cleanses the organs of perception, the indrias. The clearer, the less clouded our senses become, the more we can trust what we see and our instincts. In addition, practicing yoga involves svadyaya, self study. As we come to know ourselves, we develop a more balanced understanding of the human psyche and our own role in relationships.

We also learn what is true by testing reality. Non-Violent Communication, NVC, has a protocol for this: when confronted with a confusing reaction from someone, you venture a guess as to what the other person is feeling. From their response to your suggestion, you can begin to see what this person is truly feeling, and from there, you can look deeper to find what they might need. For example, you could say, “Are you feeling confused because we weren’t given sufficient information to complete this work?” or “Are you feeling worried about the timeline?” This technique has the potential to create a beautiful human connection that is authentic and functional.

If you are interested in learning more about NVC, you might begin with Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. We are blessed in Columbus with a lively NVC community, CCCO, Compassionate Communication of Central Ohio. Here is a link to their website:
http://www.nvcohio.org/

May our practices support our understanding of ourselves and each other and may they increase peace in the world!

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Balance: A Book Review

By Linda Oshins

As you may know, I’m a voracious reader. I also go through stages when I question what I know. How do I know something is true? Even if I’ve read research studies on a particular question, is a population of yogis enough like the study population for the study to apply? What are my unexamined assumptions and my blind spots?
For my next several blog entries I thought I would take you with me on a couple of those fact-finding missions, recommending a book along the way. For this blog spot, the topic is physical balance. Where am I in space and how do I know where I am? My thinking about balance had been: As we age, many of us lose our sense of balance. Yogis practice balance poses. Ergo, yoga is good for you. But when you lose your sense of balance, what are you losing exactly? What can practicing balancing poses do to help and how? The book Balance: In Search of the Lost Sense by Scott McCredie answered those questions and others.

Aspects of the Sense of Balance
The classic five senses—sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing—are associated primarily with one sense organ (sight with the eyes, hearing with the ears and so forth). Unlike those senses, the sense of balance depends on three sensory inputs: proprioception, the vestibular system, and vision. McCredie offers the opinion of some researchers that spacial orientation is so important to survival that, with three interwoven sensors, the sense of balance has fail-safe and back-up systems. Whenever any of the body’s three sensory inputs for balance become dysfunctional, the brain can lean to adapt by relying more on the remaining intact senses.

Proprioception
Proprioception is the system by which the body senses its own motion. It can be thought of as a variation on the sense of touch. It is unconscious in the sense that you can close your eyes, wave your arm in front of your face and know where it is in space without thinking about it. It is made up of stretch receptors located in muscles and joint-supporting ligaments and proprioceptive nerves that detect the movement of muscles and joints and the strength of effort being employed in movement. “Proprioception tells the brain how muscles are moving and where body parts are located in space, but it provides only information about relative positions—for instance, where your arm is in relation to your shoulder, or your leg in relation to your torso. It doesn’t provide clues about the absolute position of your body in space, which is necessary for any kind of complicated motion. For that, the brain relies on the vestibular system, which serves as a sort of inertial-gravitational guidance mechanism.” (p. 97)

The Vestibular System
The vestibular system has several parts—the semicircular canals of the inner ear and the utricle and the saccule, two saclike structures located beneath the semicircular canals. The head of the vestibular system is formed by the semicircular canals. When your head rotates, fluid moves in the canals, exciting minute hair cells. Those cells send signals to the brain that tell it in what direction, how fast, and how far the head is moving. The utricle and the saccule house hundred of tiny particles of calcium carbonate, which are like little rocks. When you move your head, the crystals move too, bending underlying hair cells. That tells the brain how your head is moving and its position relative to gravity.

Vision
Vision tells you how the body is oriented to things like trees or doorways, which are vertical, and gives you information about your environment (tilt and texture of the ground for example).

Yoga and Balance
So what does this mean to me when I do my yoga practice or teach a yoga class?

I’ve had beginning students who, when standing with their eyes closed, can’t tell whether their feet are toed-in or toed-out (legs internally or externally rotated at the hip for your yoga teachers), who cannot feel the curvature of the low back when bending forward, or who don’t know how to keep their center of gravity suspended over their feet when moving through sun salutes. On a whim, I once asked a roomful of seated students to close their eyes and place their hands on their center of gravity, which is located in the pelvis below the navel. To my complete surprise, most students touched their forehead! Their whole body was below that hand but the center of the world was the thinking mind! What about the wealth of sensation and wisdom available through the body, its relationship to the earth, to gravitational pull, to itself?

I’ve always especially valued what I think of as the sensory tone poem of yoga. That luscious feeling of moving. With practice feeling inside, I’ve had ever more subtle conversations with my body, feeling into places and sensations I remember from childhood, bringing aspects of the body alive and into my conscious awareness, leaving behind the repetitive movements that are part of my work day, like typing on the computer, for the full range of movement and feeling open to me. Physical awareness is one of the great gifts of yoga and easily accessible to every yoga practitioner at every level of practice.

I like to heighten my physical sense of body movement by closing my eyes during practice, making the brain rely more on the proprioceptive system to tell me where I am. With closed eyes, focused on sensation, I’m not lost in the future or the past. I am not more or less than what I feel to be true.

Our organs of balance do decline with age. “Most authorities believe our ability to maintain equilibrium peaks in our twenties and then slowly begins to deteriorate until we reach our sixties, when it plummets…. How rapidly the sense of balance diminishes depends on our genes, on the natural process of aging, and also to a large extent on how physically active we are and the types of activity we do…. Proprioceptors on the bottoms of the feet lose sensitivity, causing a lag in communication with the brain about the foot’s position on the earth. And the tiny hairs within the vestibular system’s semicircular canals and otoliths (the “rocks” in the inner ears) also lose sensitivity, decreasing the speed at which the gravity and motion sensors relay information to the brain. There is also a link between muscle strength, especially of the legs, hips, and trunk, and balance.” (p. 190) But balancing practice helps. “One-legged stances are a proven means to improve balance. Three variations were used in a study at Indiana University in 2005, designed to see whether a simple, inexpensive, home-based program could bring about positive results. A group of healthy fifty-five- to sixty-year-olds practiced the postures fifteen minutes a day, four days a week, for six weeks. At the end of the study, the researchers found that the subjects’ “sway patterns”—the subtle, almost undetectable movements the body makes, front to back and side to side, as it reacts and adjusts to the destabilizing effect of gravity—had improved (made the body more stable) by 16 percent.”

“… Older people who exercise regularly or participate in sports, one study showed, have a smaller sway pattern, and thus better balance, than those who aren’t active. …there is almost no difference in the sway patterns of elders who have exercised all their lives and those who began after retirement, indicating that it’s never too late to start a strength- and balance training program.” (p. 210)

So whether you are practicing yoga for the pure pleasure of the sensation of movement or to keep yourself strong and balanced throughout life, do practice!

Taken from Balance: In Search of the Lost Sense, by Scott McCredie.

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On finding one of His wonderful, wild companions

By Marcia Miller

Of all the poems I have read in yoga class over the years, the poet I come back to more than any other is Hafiz. His poems (especially as translated by Daniel Ladinsky) are delectable—full of mind-blowing endings, words that invite us to experience an exuberant freedom and a lot of humor. His poems often bring tears of tenderness to my eyes as well as huge guffaws.

And, it was with great disappointment that I received my first Hafiz book. At that time in my life I thought I should enjoy poetry but didn’t. The poets I had read didn’t speak to me or any of my questions. I was burning with spiritual questions from trying to live life as a yogi, far from my teachers in a world before yoga studios and wasn’t finding what I wanted. Then, a student came in bearing a gift. This wasn’t just any student, this was Katherine Dufrane, a woman I admired so much that I was a little shy to be her yoga teacher. She was a well-known energy healer in town and seemed much more enlightened than I was. And here she was finding something useful in my classes and now she was even giving me a gift! I was SO honored and excited and even a little nervous. As I unwrapped the book to find I heard God Laughing, by Hafiz, my heart sank. “Ugh poetry,” I thought. “And now I’ll have to slog through it in order to honor this gift from Katherine.”

When I got home and opened the book I was amazed and delighted. Most of the poems were short and the print was big! Maybe I could do this one or two at a time. As I started to read my first Hafiz poem dismay turned to delight. I loved it and I wanted more. That day I read many of the poems, devouring them as a starving woman. There was no savoring that day as there would be later. His words reminded me what I loved about yoga—the vastness of the practices and how I felt so fulfilled each time I came to any one of them. His words rang with such truth—a true Friend.

And now, how to choose one poem from this book, I Heard God Laughing. If you could see the lovingly broken spine, the dog-eared pages and slips of paper marking favorite poems on nearly every page. One won’t do, not even two so here I offer three. Enjoy.

What Happens

What happens when your soul
Begins to awaken
Your eyes
And your heart
And the cells of your body
To the great Journey of Love?

First there is wonderful laughter
And probably precious tears

And a hundred sweet promises
And those heroic vows
No one can ever keep.
But still God is delighted and amused
You once tried to be a saint.

What happens when your soul
Begins to awake in this world

To our deep need to love
And serve the Friend?

O the Beloved
Will send you
One of His wonderful, wild companions—
Like Hafiz.

Every Movement

I rarely let the word “No” escape
From my mouth

Because it is so plain to my soul

That God has shouted, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
To every luminous movement in Existence.

A Wild, Holy Band

Your breath is a sacred clock, my dear—
Why not use it to keep time with God’s Name?

And if your feet are ever mobile
Upon this ancient drum, the earth,
O do not let your precious movements
Come to naught.

Let your steps dance silently
To the rhythm of the Beloved’s Name!

My fingers and my hands
Never move through empty space,
For there are
Invisible golden lute strings all around,
Sending Resplendent Chords
Throughout the Universe.

I hear the voice
Of every creature and plant,
Every world and sun and galaxy—
Singing the Beloved’s Name!

I have awakened to find violin and cello,
Flute, harp and trumpet,
Cymbal, bell and drum—
All within me!
From head to toe, every part of my body
Is chanting and clapping!

Hafiz,
The Beloved has made you
Such a Luminous Man!

For with constant remembrance of God,
One’s whole body will become
A Wonderful and Wild
Holy Band!

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Reiki as a Contemplative Practice

By Marcia Miller

One of my first outings as my broken ankle healed was a trip to New York city to participate in the Urban Zen Training program with Rodney Yee, Colleen Saidman Yee and Roshi Joan Halifax. Ever since Rodney had met Roshi Joan several years ago, he had repeatedly urged me to come see her the next time she was there. I trusted he knew what he was talking about and I went.

Roshi Joan has worked at the bedside of the dying for 40 years. In recent years her focus has become the training of caregivers at the bedside. Her work is designed to offer strategies and practices to allow the full human expression of this difficult work and to offer the timeless practices she has gleaned from years of Buddhist meditation practice. I experienced her as a powerfully present, compassionate and human teacher.

The first teaching that I remember from her was a simple yet profound one—inhale into the full catastrophe of the present moment, exhale and give it a bit more space. This is a practice to do when you would prefer with all your might to run away from whatever is present for you—whether it is physical or emotional pain or something so confusing or frightening you can’t imagine a way out. Instead of resistance, breathe it in—here it is. This whole situation just as it is. Ahhh. Now exhale and let there be a bit more space for the whole experience to unfold as it is unfolding. Just this. Now once again, breathe in just as it is, exhale a bit more space.

The second main practice she offered, which she offers to everyone she teaches, is the practice of Tonglen. Tonglen is a Buddhist meditation practice that invites us to inhale the suffering of others, let it alchemically change in our hearts to our natural love and compassion and to exhale the love and compassion for the benefit of others. As Roshi Joan says in her book, Being with Dying, “The great kindness of this rare practice releases our whole being to suffering’s overwhelming presence, cultivates our strength and willingness to transform alienation into compassion, and is one of the richest and bravest practices we can do….This is one of the great meditation jewels that offers a way to nurture the natural energy of mercy and basic goodness.” (There is a complete description of the practice in this book.)

As I got back home I began to find many links in my own practices with what Roshi Joan offered us over the time with her. Over the years I have had many long periods of practicing Tonglen meditation and have found them profoundly powerful. But I also realized that my Reiki sending practice is very much a contemplative practice in the way Roshi was teaching and was glad to feel that I have already been building these connections in many and regular ways. In our large yoga community we always know someone in pain or with a family member in crisis of some kind. And many of us who have learned Reiki “pray” for others by sending Reiki as a regular part of our morning practices. I have a book with the names of all the people I have sent to over the years and I keep adding to it as requested or as I request of myself. The book itself feels like a sacred treasure—so many people I have cared about are there and my Reiki hands have blessed it over and over. As I do my send (generally after meditation and asana—all the practices that connect me to my Source) I think of the people personally on the list, the “catastrophe” that precipitated their inclusion in my book, the feeling I have for them and the mystery of connection that comes from sending Reiki. I know they are in dire need yet recognizing the sense of the reiki in my heart seems to buoy me up (and I hope them.) Love and the prayer “May this be for the highest good of us all,” flows from there. It allows me to rest in the complete mystery of not-knowing along with a direct experience of our interdependence.

In the past I might have spent time worrying about the person I was sending to; my mind seems always eager to go down that path. But the body sensations of worry are extremely unpleasant—my heart feels contracted, my belly churns and overall I am left feeling hopeless. So the practice of being with the whole catastrophe and connecting to the place in me that is Love seems much more useful. And over and over, in the midst of crisis we feel connected, enlivened and filled with gratitude.

This flow of compassion to a friend in need is natural and personal and even if we haven’t studied reiki or Buddhist meditation we may have our own ways of offering and sharing our love. What are your natural expressions of compassion for another?

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