Still Shuffling, but is it Self-Care?

imagesYou might be thinking, “How’s the shuffling going?”

Not bad. Thanks for asking.

Our cat Bruce rises with the birds. These days that’s around 5AM. And if Bruce is up, I’m up. I’ve no complaints. To be truthful, it’s quite nice. At 5AM it’s dark and peaceful but there’s evidence of a patient dawn waiting to break on the horizon. The birds are stretching their wings and calling good morning to one another across the leafy branches but haven’t yet attacked the feeder on our porch. There’s a calm to this time of day that I love.

Around 6:15 I’ll head out for the shuffle. I’ll be honest, until my bones are warm it’s not far removed from plain misery. But after that, after I fall into the rhythm it’s…well…it alternates between misery and torment. Let’s be honest here – if you know me you know I’m not a gazelle. This is a real, fourteen minute shuffle I’m talking about. I’m moving fast enough for my steps to no longer qualify as brisk walking but too slow to be considered running. In fact, calling it jogging is generous. So why would I subject myself to misery and torment so early in the morning? Good question. 

Because it makes me feel good. That’s right. It feels good. I love the challenge, the fresh air, the improvement I can see from day to day. On my first shuffle about six weeks ago I made it one length of a block. What is that? Three hundred feet? And now I can shuffle a full mile before taking a walking break. My morning shuffle is a gift I give my body. It’s a gift I give my psyche.

But I wonder. Is my shuffle self-care? It depends. If by self-care we mean taking time to keep the body healthy and the heart ticking then yes, it’s self-care. If by self-care we mean engaging in an activity from which we derive some pleasure then yes, it’s self-care. But what if by self-care we mean taking time to find solace in the waking dawn?

In that case, listening to the birds sing at 5AM wins every time.

What does self-care mean to you? A warm bath? A long walk? A glass of merlot? More than ever, dedicating some time to self-care each day is important. It’s not selfish nor is it self-indulgent. It’s necessary. Especially now. The way our world has changed in just eight weeks is giving rise to a second pandemic of mental health issues. So, yes, self-care is necessary.

How will you define self-care and how will you bring it into your life?


The Importance of Stillness

CIMG2291When I was a kid I spent most of my time in my bedroom. We lived in a former two-room schoolhouse that had been built in 1814 and converted into a home sometime in the 1950’s. My room still had the chalk trough running along one wall and when I pretended to be a ballerina like my best friend Leslie Merkle I used it as a barre. The trough ran through to the small room next door that had been converted into a tiny playroom. This room had a portion of the original blackboard. When my mom found an old desk from the school behind an out building she refinished it for the playroom where I pretended to teach Barbie, her best friend Midge an array of stuffed animals how to multiply. That room also held my awesome collection of Archie comic books and Classics Illustrated.

But most of the time I was in my bedroom. If I wasn’t playing my ukulele or guitar then I was playing records or lip syncing to Tony Orlando and Dawn with my hairbrush as a microphone. If that was too much action for me I was happy to sit on the wide windowsill writing or maybe watching the creek that ran behind our house. There were three lilac bushes near my bedroom window and I was content to close my eyes to let their scent wash over me.

I was content being still.

Since we’ve been confined to quarters I’ve thought about how, as a child, I was happy with my own company. Fifty years later I’m looking to my young self to help me navigate our current shutdown.

Of course, when I was a child the only way to stay connected to friends was with the one black rotary dial telephone located in my mother’s bedroom. We were one of five or six families connected by a party line and if Luella Welty, who lived down the lane, stayed on the phone for too long my mom would yell at her to hang up. 

There are no more party lines. Now we have Zoom and WebEx and FaceTime. We have Instagram and Twitter.  And as often as I’ve tried to quit Facebook, I just can’t. So although we are physically distant from one another, we’re not necessarily socially distant. It has made the art of stillness elusive.

Yet stillness is important. It’s the place where are heart rests. It’s where our brain stops listening to the mind’s incessant chatter and hears the birdsong instead. We need to have moments of stillness now more than ever. In an uncertain world, stillness is a refuge of peace and hope.


Three Weeks From Now

I’m watching Brian Stelter on CNN this morning. He makes an important point: it’s not SOCIAL distancing, it’s PHYSICAL distancing we’re meant to practice. And then he asks, “Three weeks ago, what did you think you’d be doing today?”

Three weeks ago I thought today would be the day Ben and I celebrate his birthday a few days late. I imagined a sunny drive to Half Moon Bay and a walk along the bluffs. I imagined a wonderful lunch – maybe at Duarte’s in Pescardero. I imagined a stop at Harley Farms to pet the goats and to stock up on hand salve and habanero jam. Instead, he’s in Ohio helping his son move from his dorm and back home. The campus is closed and for the foreseeable future his classes will be online.

Three weeks ago I thought that later today, after the birthday celebrations, I’d be planning my week, scheduling meetings, thinking about lesson plans, thinking about my first class of the week at Subud House and preparing practices for my individual clients. Instead, I’m filling an empty schedule with the theory classes I need to complete via Zoom as part of the requirements of the 18-month program in coaching through ICA that I enrolled in at the start of the year. I’m thinking about how I can remain physically distant from students and yet still hold on to the continuity of a regular group practice. And of course I’m thinking about all the goals I set for myself at the start of the year that I let go of as life became too full.

But now life isn’t full. Samyama Yoga Center has closed through April. Clients I see in their own homes have pressed ‘pause’ and the pain management programs I’m part of are hanging on by tenterhooks and I would not be surprised if they, too, shuttered for a few weeks.  

I have the mental space I’ve been craving but it does not make me happy. It makes me feel unmoored.  I’m filled with an unnerving mix of acceptance and anxiety.  I peeled myself away from the news just long enough to watch the movie Contagion.

Three weeks ago it was easy to think about what I’d be doing today. Ask me what I’ll be doing three weeks from now and I don’t have an answer.

This brings home the truth that our only constant is change and the most important thing we can do to feel safe in an uncertain world is to remain rooted in our practice.

As Seltzer ended his segment he suggested social media can be a force for good. And why not? It doesn’t matter if it’s filled with saccharine quotes, fake news and cute cat videos. It can also be a place where we can still be together. 

Hang in there. Stay healthy and in cyber-touch.  Wash your hands, moisturize and don’t hoard toilet paper. 


Hearing versus Listening

“Are you listening to me?”

We were sitting at my desk getting ready for a cozy evening of movie watching on the iMac.

“Are you listening to me?”

I said, “Of course I’m listening to you.” And then proceeded to repeat in perfect order every word.

I wish. Truth is, while I heard Ben talking, I wasn’t listening. 

We don’t do it on purpose. Sometimes we’re distracted. Sometimes we’re thinking about answers to questions that haven’t been asked. Sometimes we’re thinking about lunch.

Whatever the reason, when we are hearing and not listening, we miss out on the benefits that being present and mindful offer. We lose our connection to the person speaking and all that implies, whether it’s a moment of empathy and support or a chance to laugh ourselves silly. 

So here is how I plan to practice listening:

  1. I’m going to back away from the keyboard in order to turn my gaze from the computer screen or cutting board or craft project to the person speaking.
  2. I’m going to look them in the eyes to make a connection – a silent affirmation to indicate ‘yes, what you have to say is important and I am listening to you’.
  3. I’m going to notice when my mind begins to act on the urge to form a response before the person who is speaking has finished – and then draw myself back to the present.
  4. I’m going to ask more questions. An enquiring mind is a listening mind.
  5. I’m not going to talk simply to hear myself speak because, in the end, I’ll learn more from listening to others.

Aparigraha: Non-attachment (teachers leave and students aren’t lemmings)

It’s said that attachment causes suffering and I suppose that’s true. I was attached to my first yoga teachers and the alignment-based system of practice they taught. My attachment ran so deep that as I arrived for class if I noticed there was a substitute I turned around and left.  My attachment to their teaching and to that system remained after I moved away and began the search for new teachers. The deep, impenetrable layers of judgement I carried with me, however, prevented me from enjoying practice. More importantly, judgements prevented me from learning because no other yoga instructor could climb the pedestal on which I’d placed my teachers. How incredibly unfair. It pains me to think of all the opportunities I lost – opportunities to gain knowledge because of the attachment I held to my yoga ‘lineage’ and to my first yoga teachers.

Decades later but only a little more wise and I find myself in an awkward position. A few weeks ago I was offered and accepted a new class, stepping in to take over for a beloved instructor who had been teaching at Samyama, like me, from Day One. When I first agreed to take the class I didn’t think about the implications.

And then I did. 

By saying ‘yes’ I set in motion a chain of events that upended my schedule and required that I practice aparigraha – non-attachment. Because as much as students become attached to teachers, teachers become attached to students.

There’s comfort in seeing the students’ same smiling faces when I take tadasana in front of a class. We know what to expect from one another. They know I’m going to crack a few bad jokes. I know that a least a few of them will laugh even if they’ve heard the same joke for the last eight years. They know I’m going to encourage the use of blocks in half moon and revolved triangle in order to experience the unencumbered swoop of clear energy a few inches of extra height delivers. I know that at least a few will decline the suggestion and that I won’t mind as long as they’re safe because we are all on our own journey. They know I’m not going to play music because silence is so rare. They know I’m not going to offer hands-on adjustments because I don’t know their entire story (and I don’t have x-ray vision). I know, that for some, these are the reasons why they chose my class. 

But the students who lost their teacher had not chosen my class. They chose someone else’s class and now that someone was gone.

Arriving at that realization (a ‘no-brainer’ for some but for me a ‘smack-in-the-head-emoji’ moment) opened my heart to a deeper understanding of arparigraha. Setting free attachment to schedules and classes and the comfort of smiling faces is sort of easy. Knowing I could also set free my attachment to the knowledge that I am not the teacher I am replacing (and the anxiety that knowledge causes) set in motion another chain of events. Releasing that attachment also released my attachment to the fear I have of being a disappointment, of not being liked, of losing students and of not experiencing the same success as my predecessor.

At the end of the day, I am lucky. Many of the students I had in my earlier class moved to the new class. And it looks like more than a few of the previous teacher’s students are staying, too.

What have I learned? I’ve learned that the most difficult attachment to let go of is the story we tell ourselves. I’ve also learned that there is one attachment I hope to never let go of: my attachment to being me.


I Am Here

As I come to understand that my mother is going to die soon I find it difficult to remain present. My mind wanders to past injustices real or imagined and to future hurdles. I was not the best daughter. I stew in the guilt of our 28-year estrangement and then in the next moment choke it down where it sits like a lump in my belly.

Watching my mother’s dementia worsen is like watching a life disappear. And as I empty her trailer of books and furniture and clothing and photos it’s clear to me that my actions, too, are part of the process of disappearing.

What do I do with the things that hold resonance for me? Like the oak bookshelves, or the cookie jar and the 4-string guitar? They’re stacked and covered in blankets in a storage locker 2500 miles away. Will they stay there forever? Would it have been better to sell or give them away? In a year will I have regret for the books I saw thrown away or the trinkets I decided to keep?

And what about the things too big to hide in a storage locker? Like her trailer? It won’t sell and I can’t pay the $800 lot rent. Do I abandon my mother’s home for the past forty years? Her neighbor is afraid that if I close the PPL (Pennsylvania Power and Light) account the water pipes will freeze and burst, causing havoc and despair for everyone in her Green Acres Mobile Home Park circle.

I didn’t expect to be doing this alone. I didn’t expect to be doing it at all. When I ran away from my mother and my sister I had no plans to return. But there was a moment when I thought ‘an old woman deserves peace’ and I reached out. I told myself that I didn’t need to love her. I didn’t even need to like her. But I needed to be with her and to do my best to care for her. To be kind to her.

And I was. 

She and my sister had stopped speaking to one another years earlier. For that reason I kept Margaret shut off from my life. Something I regret. A few years after the reunion with my mother Margaret died. 

And now here I am, finding it difficult to remain present. 

When I was in Pennsylvania in October I began each day with a walk and a photograph. It was grounding and brought a sense of calm presence to me that stayed with me for much of the day. But when I returned to Allentown last week I  forgot that practice. Until I took half a day to visit my favorite place – Hawk Mountain.

The photographs are nothing fancy – simply shot with my iPhone 7. But each time I hold up that little miracle of a computer I am in the moment. There is nothing but my beating heart and the leaf or flower or mountain I’m looking at. For that little moment there is no past, no future. There is only now.

I came home last Friday and have decided to continue the practice of taking one photograph each day. And in that moment all things fall away and I am here.


Phase II: I Forgot to Flush

As a child I could count on one thing. When my mom put a plate of food in front of me at dinner time, next to the plate I’d find a calcium tablet, a vitamin A capsule and a One-a-Day. Ive been an on-again/off-again supplement taker ever since. Ever the optimist, I always hope my diet provides all the nutrition I need, making supplementation unnecessary. Ever the realist, I know there are times when my diet fails me…or maybe I fail my diet. Either way, there are times when I feel I need a little help. Sometimes I’ll add a good vitamin/mineral supplement to my morning routine, sometimes I throw in a cal/mag (calcium and magnesium) for good measure. Sometimes I do nothing and hope for the best.

Since beginning Phase I of NaturalStart’s Detox, Flush and Reboot I’ve been taking a combination of supplements all designed to prepare my body for Phase II. These include a great B complex, Omega oils and an assortment of herbs all chosen for their purported ability to support my immune system and the health of my liver. And, as reported, I feel great. Even last week, when I burned through the latest virus making the rounds, my body handled it better than dear Ben’s, who languished in bed for two days.

But I stopped taking some of the supplements because I realized that I’m not ready for Phase II – the liver flush.  Phase I did for me more than I thought it would – or could. I’ll share some of my positive results in a later post.

In the meantime, what about this ‘flush’? I attempted to find the origins of this traditional remedy. While their are dozens of different recipes none of the websites I looked at could offer a precise history. My guess is that it began as a simple and far easier folk remedy: two teaspoons of olive oil in the morning with a little lemon juice – basically a simple vinegarette – for the health of the liver (those folks in the Mediterranean know what they’re doing). That slowly morphed into week-long prep involving juice fasting, epsom salts and enough vinegarette to dress a very, very large salad.

At NaturalStart the flush is preceded by a thorough exam by naturopath Dr. Diane Fong. This exam includes Applied Kinesiology, or ‘muscle testing’, which proponents believe can help practitioners determine allergies and weaknesses in our bodies’ systems. 

The flush is recommended as a method of removing toxins and stones from the liver and the gallbladder. The process is extreme and has it’s naysayers. That being said, the individuals I’ve spoken to who have completed the process report great results. For two of them, taking a quarterly liver flush keeps their eczema under control.

When I was invited to participate in Detox, Flush and Reboot I said ‘yes’ because i was curious. I wanted my opinion on formerly ‘fringe’ practices that are becoming more and more mainstream to be based on experience rather than hearsay. But, for now, at least, I’m pushing the ‘pause’ button. I’ll be honest – there’s a part of me that really, really, REALLY doesn’t want to drink a half cup of olive oil. Despite the positive results I’ve witnessed in others I still question whether or not it’s healthy for me. Besides – all the other parts of me are building the good habits set in motion by the start of the program.

That’s what a ‘detox’ is supposed to do, isn’t it? Embarking on a journey like this automatically makes you mindful if the choices you make. It highlights your ‘bad’ habits while forging positive ones.

Everything I hoped for – increased vitality, clearer skin and less bloating – have happened. All I need to do now is to stop thinking about the changes I’ve made as part of a finite program. These changes – I hope – are changes I’ve made for life.


Pressing Pause: The Joy of Hot Water and Lemon Water

Let’s just say I’m holding steady. My schedule won’t allow me to ease into phase two for another week, which is fine by me.

Each day I’m surprised. I’m surprised by how easy I’ve found this process. I’m surprised by how well I feel. I’m surprised by how my response to day-to-day stress seems to have shifted toward something resembling calm. Ever the skeptical inquirer, however, I continue to question.

How could a few shifts in my diet, coupled with a supplement regime, produce results in just a few weeks? Besides, didn’t I cheat once or twice (or thrice)?

The point of the practice, I suppose, is to create the conditions by which I am consistently mindful of what I am putting into my body. That means being mindful not only when I’m making good choices but being mindful even when my choices are less than helpful. It also means cultivating good habits – like beginning the day with a mug of hot water and lemon juice.

But mornings can be hectic in my household and the simple act of boiling the kettle, pouring hot water into a mug and then adding a squeeze of fresh lemon juice squeezing the lemon into it can fall down the list of priorities when there are showers to take, a litter box to clean and emails to answer.

My solution is to set myself up for a good morning the night before. Before bed I fill my forty ounce Mira thermos with hot water, the juice from one whole lemon and – as suggested by NaturalStart’s Detox, Flush and Reboot program – a little pinch of cayenne pepper. Sometimes I’ll add a bit of grated fresh ginger, too. In the morning my hot lemon water is ready for me. I drink a large glass when I wake and sip the rest throughput the day.

But why? Why is this is healthy habit? An internet search will offer a list of reasons, some more dubious than others. I found a balanced explanation on Wellness Mama but I’ll be honest- I don’t really need a list of benefits that may or may not be true. I can report that I’ve noticed an improvement in my skin tone. It’s possible the dark circles under my eyes aren’t so obvious. But mostly it just feels good to begin my day with a glass of lemon water. I don’t really need any other reason to keep this healthy habit.


Day XIII, Week II, Phase I: I Feel Good

I feel good. And it’s not a lingering sugar high from the emotional ice cream binge I enjoyed a few days ago. I just feel – good.

Two weeks in and the tweaks I’ve made to my wellness routine are beginning to pay dividends.

It’s safe to say my routine needed some major tweaking. I’d begun to lose my way and was beginning to feel too much like a hamster running on an out-of-control wheel.  

My optimal diet is not too far removed from the suggested diet plan from NaturalStart Medicine’s Detox, Flush, Reboot program: fresh, organic, locally sourced vegetables and fruit, whole grains, avoiding (with the goal of eliminating) sugar, caffeine, alcohol, dairy and gluten. Chicken and fish for omnivores. I’m not restricting my calories because my primary reason for being part of this program is not weight loss. Because I’m making healthier choices, however, I won’t complain if I drop a few pounds.

When did I stop making healthy choices? When did convenience become my default mode? Over the past few months I’ve found myself unable to gain traction at work. I blame my Bullet Journal. Any organizational tool that allows me to create a list of projects that I want to complete within a specific period of time dooms me to failure. I simply can’t keep up with the expectations I create for myself. Preoccupied with keeping pace with my to-do list I began to rely too much on avocado toast, frozen veggie burritos, and Friday night pizza for sustenance. I began to self-medicate with a glass (or two) of wine on most evenings. Pulling myself out of bed at 5:30 AM and immediately sitting behind a screen was still not enough to keep pace with the demands I placed on my life.

A ‘detox’ only works if we follow the guidelines. And, of course, that’s why they can be a very effective way to modify unhealthy behaviors.

And that’s why I feel good. To the best of my ability I’ve made thoughtful, considered choices about what to put in my body. It shouldn’t surprise me and yet it does – fourteen days in and healthy, nutritionally dense foods have returned to me the vitality I thought I’d lost.

I’m starting Week III on Monday. If I stick to my schedule I’ll be moving into Phase II of the program –  the ‘flush’ phase. But I’ve not decided yet if that’s what I want to do. I may hang out in Phase I for one more week. I’d like a full week with no wistful cravings for pizza. I’d like a week where I don’t automatically stuff my emotions with ice cream.

Plus, I think it’s important to be psychologically prepared for the flush and I’m not quite certain I’m there yet… 


Arrival

Our plane touches down on schedule at Bangalore’s airport at 1:30 AM Wednesday morning. We deplane quickly and I am one of the first in line at passport control.

Traffic in Bangalore is a sensory experience of lights, color and sound

“What hotel are you staying in?”

“What?”

“What hotel are you staying in? How long are you here? When are you leaving? Have you purchased your ticket to leave?”

“What?”

Two hours later I am still sitting in immigration, left alone and convinced I’ll be put on the next plane back to Frankfurt. When an older gentleman finally decides he can see me, I tell the story once again.

“I don’t know the name of the hotel. We’re in Bangalore until Friday. I can show you the entire itinerary, I just can’t show you the name of the hotel.”

It’s unlike me to be so unprepared. To not know the answer to an obvious question. How could I have let this happen? And why didn’t I lie? Surely it would be so simple to say that we’re staying at the Marriott. But what if we’re not? What would the consequences be?I begin to plead.

“He’s downstairs waiting for me. Can’t someone just go downstairs and ask him the name of the hotel?”

The reply is gruff. “I can assure you he’s not downstairs.”

As it happens, Ben is indeed downstairs enjoying cups of tea with his driver. I don’t know this but he has already spoken to Lufthansa, who have assured him that I am upstairs. He is told about my problem at immigration and provides the name and address of the hotel. The message is never delivered.

By 3:30 AM I almost see the humor in the situation.

I’m kept company by two young immigration officers. We try and fail to force my phone to connect to Ben’s. I remind them again that Ben is on the ground floor and if they only called for him on the courtesy phone or the loudspeaker or held up a sign with his name on it he would arrive and I would be released from captivity.

“Are you certain he’s here?”

“Of course I am. He’s here.”

One of my two companions takes the iPhone I’ve been clutching and tries to reach Ben through WhatsApp. It doesn’t work. For some reason Find Friends does and we are finally able to confirm that Ben is where he promised to be. A few moments later – and by that point my brain is so tired it’s impossible for me to know how it happened – a text comes through from Ben with the name of the hotel. My immigration companion writes the information down on the form and sends me on my way.

My processing, however, is still not complete. I need to return to the starting point. There are fingerprints to process, bioinformation to gather and a passport to stamp.

“So you are a yoga teacher?”

The details are easily available on my visa application.

“Yes.”

“Tell me, how can I lose weight?”

Is this a trick question? I’ve been traveling for twenty-six hours and have been held captive for the past two. Do I have the cerebral energy to formulate enough words to deliver the answer she wants to hear?

“I don’t really think yoga is about losing weight.”

I find the strength to mumble something about Patanjali and pranayama, about right living. They nod.

“But can you give me some tips? How can I lose weight?”

I give up.

“Practice.”

Downstairs my suitcase is delivered and I’m escorted through arrivals. Ben and his driver greet me with a garland of exquisite flowers and a bouquet. The heady scent is overwhelming and beautiful. It surrounds me as surely as the soft chatter of loving reunions and the relentless barking of car horns.

Welcome to Bangalore, India.

An hour later, at 6:00 AM, we arrive at our hotel.

It’s the Marriott.