Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Free Falling: The Upside to Upside-Down

In the dozen or more years since my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer and doused with radiation, it’s pretty much been a downward slide for her cognitive function and balance.  She also requires hearing aids, has no hair or eyebrows, has had two cataract surgeries, and teeth that are, as she says, “falling out.” 

In fact, most of her days are spent in fear of things falling out and down, predominantly her falling down.  There is cause for this fear because with limited balance and jello-like muscles, she falls with some frequency, and according to her, “for no reason.” And each time she falls, the fear of falling again cements her to the chair, frozen in place, death grip on the walker.  Sadly, she is the same age as John McCain (ran for president) and the age-defying Jane Fonda.

Studies show that “fear of falling” is a “phenomenon now interpreted as a significant risk factor of its own for the elderly.” Why?  Because fear lives mostly in the mind, growing as we feed it.   And then becomes the obstacle itself.

This spiral of fear can be present at any age.  Facing our fears, especially through physical challenges, can prove a way out of this circular mental process.  In yoga, it’s inversions that help confront and conquer fear.  But our instinct is to avoid and flee them.  That’s why everyone suddenly has to go to the bathroom in a yoga class when “let’s do headstand” is announced.  While I usually stayed and stuck it out, it was near torture to struggle with my own demons while attempting this pose. 

Inversions require core strength, balance, strong arms, neck and shoulders, to name just a few.  Many people for various health reasons shouldn’t attempt headstand or other full inversions.  For the rest of us, it’s about getting physically stronger so that we can meet the challenge while staring down fear again and again in some kind of “come to Jesus meeting.”

When achieved, however, there is elation.  That’s why, today, I’m addicted to headstand—and other inversions—and make them part of my daily practice.  Headstand (sirsasana) is a powerful pose that allows you to feel light and weightless, calm and energized.  Like free-falling.  Science supports this description:  “Technically, an object is in free fall even when moving upwards or instantaneously at rest at the top of its motion.”  Properly inverted, there is this kind of “rest” just at the point where the body is fully balanced upside down. 

And inversions offer innumerable benefits, all of which help to reverse nearly every symptom of aging: 
  • Increase blood flow to the brain, nourishing cells with oxygen and nutrients to improve concentration, memory, awareness, and thinking.
  • Help to raise levels of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, which regulates “fight or flight” response, dopamine needed to control movement, and serotonin, which regulates a healthy emotional state.
  • Improve digestion and relieve constipation, which makes everyone feel better.
  • Relieve anxiety, tension, and insomnia.
  • Make you look beautiful, a result of improved circulation and skin tone.  Who doesn’t want that?
So, perhaps stop running, find a knowledgeable teacher you trust, and give inversions a try.  If you’re not quite ready for headstand, shoulder stand or a handstand, get stronger with downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) or any pose where the heart is above the head—all inversions.  If it’s just not right for your body, treat yourself to “legs up the wall” (viparita karani), also considered an inverted pose.  Here’s Yoga Journal’s guidance for getting into the pose.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Are you awake?

My personal mantra for about a year now has been to start the day by recalling Henry David Thoreau’s dictum, “only that day dawns to which we are awake,” and then ask myself:  Am I awake?    

Most behaviors are automatic—and anticipate the next thing.  We don’t think much about showering and brushing our teeth, many work activities are completely routine, and we’re largely on automatic pilot when driving, freeing us to talk on mobile devices and perform other activities often with unintended consequences.  Yoga poses we execute frequently are often practiced while creating grocery lists or ruminating on relationships. 

While automatic behavior is good, and frees us to perform multiple tasks with little thinking, it’s also mindless. While we may get burst of inspiration at any time, being awake allows for a kind of consistent attendance in the moment.  This intentional, or wakeful, mind nourishes clear seeing, behavior, and decision-making.

A Buddha is the title given to one who has become awakened or enlightened, and Buddhism is the philosophy of awakening.  In this frame, enlightenment is compared to waking up because there is an experience of transformation of body and mind.  So, how do mere mortals begin to wake up? 

Start with the breath (it’s almost always the answer).  Complete focus on the intricacies and beauty of one’s own unique breath let you know you are alive in the most basic sense.  When my oldest niece was perhaps three or four years old, I went off on some rant about who knows what, voice raised and limbs flailing, and she cupped her hands around my face, turned me to look her in the eyes and said, “Aunt Conni, take a deep breath.”   This is the command we give to bring someone back to themselves, to their body, and to the present.  Wake them up. 

Another wake-up tool is recognition of our connectedness.  I had a profound experience of this after swimming in the Pacific Ocean off the shores of Costa Rica (that's the beach below).  When I got in, I didn’t expect to stay long, but the ocean water was warm and the bottom sandy for a long ways out so it invited lingering.  While large waves reigned at other points along the shoreline, where I swam, they mostly proved enduring and soothing.  So I stayed in the water while others came and went.  When it was time to go and I finally walked out, it was like reemerging from the womb.  I seemed to carry the entire ocean, the universe, inside of me, the rhythmic movement of the waves continuing inside my own water body.  

It’s simply an illusion that we are separate.  There are often only glimpsed awakenings to the reality that we are part and parcel of all things, rock and sky, moon and blade of grass.  Thich Nhat Hahn has said, “Enlightenment, for a wave in the ocean, is the moment the wave realizes it is water.”

When awake, you recognize the sacred in yourself and all others.  There is space to listen, time to ask yourself what is the right action, what is needed in that moment.  To not forget your umbrella.  Our path becomes intentional rather than automatic.  To be awake is to allow our true nature to unfold, to recollect our divinity. 

A final thought on the subject from civil rights activist Howard Thurman:  "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." 

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