Sunday, August 26, 2012

Who Are These People?

Affirmation:  I am a Bold Adventuress!

When Geraldine Lucas was 58 years old she became the first woman to climb the Grand Teton.  She retired as a teacher in the east and packed herself up and established a homestead in Wyoming in what is now the Grand Tetons National Park.  In the beginning she didn't even have electricity or running water!  It appears from the stories I was told while traveling through the area that women were very influential in the development of this state and in its governing. 
The brave, adventurous spirit must continue to thrive in this part of the world because wherever Sandy and I traveled in Wyoming we found people with an amazing sense of adventure. 
Pink's name tag had "Taiwan" printed under her name.  She was a waitress in Yellowstone National Park.  I was in awe.  She was there just for the summer.  "You are so brave." I commented.  "No" she said in very broken English "I came here with my classmate." "How many?" I asked.  "One." she answered.  Wherever we went the name tags told us from where the seasonal employees came.  They were from faraway places like China, Ecuador, Russia, and of course, they were also from different parts of the United States.  I wanted to know if they were enjoying their experience and almost all of them told me they were having a wonderful time.  One young woman said she couldn't believe someone was paying her to show people the beauty of Yellowstone.  This same young woman had spent a few of her free days hiking and tenting in the park with another gal, just them and their bear spray!  Another young man said it was his 4th summer.  "What's not to like?  I'm getting paid and in my free time I get to hike and fish all summer." 
When my husband and I talk about the opportunities presented to us as young people we recognize that we simply had no knowledge of the kind of experiences that might have been available then, that are available to people today, all people.
We met some of the coolest adults while traveling through the National Parks.  Did you know people of all ages work as seasonal workers in the parks?  And, the most fascinating part, for me, is everyone I spoke with was having a wonderful time.  It was the 14th year of service for one of the seasonal rangers we met. The first time I met an older adult who worked in the parks was in Yosemite.  Sandy and I went to a Sunday service in the tiny church in the park.  At one point we were encouraged to greet the other people attending the service and to chat with each other.  One woman we greeted told us she and her husband were seasonal workers.  They had sold their home and all of its contents, bought an RV and each year since, they had chosen a different park to work in during the summer.  My eyes were as big as quarters as I listened.  My husband looked shocked.  I think he was afraid I was going to head home and begin the process of becoming a National Park gypsy. 
One of our guides shared with us the story of how he met his wife.  It was July in Alaska and he was doing research, out in the wild all by himself.  He was a professor of geology at one of the universities up there and in the summers he trekked through the wilderness for weeks on end collecting samples.  The weather turned unusually cold and it began to snow. He was concerned about getting back to civilization when he heard voices off in the distance.  He could see through his binoculars that three people were huddled around a fire with a raft pulled up onto the shore.  As he was looking through his binoculars, one of the women on the river trip was looking through her binoculars; their eyes met and it was love at first sight.  They had been married 14 years at the time of his story.  He said his friends were right when they told him it would be "a snowy day in July" before he met someone who would marry him. He went onto say she saved him in more ways than one.  He wasn't sure he would have made it out of the wilderness if he hadn't met up with them and their raft.  His wife to be and two friends had been dropped off at the top of a seldom traveled river with a pickup date and time scheduled for two weeks later.  It was quite a daring thing to do but it wasn't her first trek into the unknown.  As a young single mother she had gone to live with friends, saved all her money and had taken her 12 year old son on a 2 year trek around the world in a van.
Who are these people?  It's all I can think to ask when I meet these adventurous spirits.  It's all I can think to ask when I read and hear about the pioneers of the past.  I believe there's a fine line between bravery and stupidity.  Sometimes I think the only way to know which side of the line one is on, is afterwards, by the results of one's actions.  If you enter into a dangerous situation and you come through unscathed or stronger for it, you might be considered brave.  If you don't come through, you'll probably be considered stupid.  But, don't all pioneers begin their journeys on paths unknown and untested?  Where would we be without people willing to step way outside of their comfort zones?
In the Grand Tetons we also had the opportunity to watch several para-gliders come off one of the mountains and soar above us as they came to land at our feet.  It was mesmerizing to watch.  I was ready to give it a try, next time, but once again, the question arose, "Who are these people?" Who was the first one to step off the mountain with a parachute attached to them?  Were they brave or were they dumb?  Does it matter? If no one is willing to go out and see and try that which is new, there would be no growth.  Think of all we would be missing today?
I for one am grateful for the spirit that takes people to places unknown.  I am grateful for those in our society who are willing to challenge themselves so that those of us who are not as adventurous or as spirited, get to follow in their footsteps, get to see and enjoy and experience things we might never have had the opportunity to experience except that they paved the way for us. They are our forefathers and our foremothers and they are those who are still with us, the students and seasonal workers of our parks and perhaps those amazing people within our circles who also help us broaden our horizons because of their bravery and courage.
This, for me, is the blessing of travel.  I get to see the world differently than I would have had I stayed home in my cozy little world.  I get to meet people and hear stories I'd never have met or heard if I were afraid to venture outside of my comfort zone.  It's true, I wasn't the to first step off the mountain and try to soar; I am not the one living in a tent and listening for bears; I'm not the one rafting down an unknown river or even taking a new job in an unfamiliar location but I am the one enjoying the fruits of all these pioneers because I am the one, perhaps a lot like you, that did travel to unknown places both out in the world and then, even more importantly, inside to within, to my heart and to my spirit to discover that maybe there have been at least a few times in my life and maybe more, when I could answer, "I am one of those people." 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Younger Next Year

Affirmation: The Best is yet to come.

What age would you tell someone you are if you didn’t know what age you are?  Stephen Levine asked this question at a seminar on Death and Dying that he was presenting many years ago.  Sometimes, I find myself asking myself that question.  When I’m on a golf course, I feel about 25.  Not because I’m a good golfer but because I always feel like a newbie even though I have played on and off for over 40 years.  After I was treated for cancer, I aged about ten years, in one year.  Before cancer I would have answered that I was about 35, after cancer I felt like 45.  I guess that was ok since at the time I was treated I was 52.  I haven’t “aged” much over the last two decades which makes me wonder if that shows a lack of maturity, a lack of self-awareness or complete denial about the passing of time. 

My first visit to Canyon Ranch in Arizona was over a decade ago.  I was looking for a way to learn about how to best take care of my health and I had read a lot about the resort and decided to give it a try.  It’s a wonderful place, very holistic and almost surreal.  It met all my expectations.  While there the founder and owner, Mel Zuckerman did an early morning presentation about the beginning of the ranch and why he started it.  He was very dynamic and I found his story to be quite inspirational.  He said when he first arrived in Arizona he was not in good health.  One of the first tests he took determined his “age” based on his physical condition.  He was about 55 at the time and the test came back that he was in his 70s. Now, he was in his 70s and after years of training and healthy food and other practices, his “age” tested at 55.  At the time that seemed like a radical concept, becoming "younger" as one ages but now there is a lot of information about getting stronger and healthier as we age.  One of my personal favorites is Younger Next Year by Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge, M.D.

A friend told me “Growing old is not for the weak of heart.”  I know the number one determining factor about how we age is our genes.  It’s also the number one factor determining if we age, but the second most influential factor is how and what we think about the aging process.  In the Omega Institute’s first Conscious Aging conference one speaker shared his research into the number one factor concerning the age at which we will die.  After years of research, he found it was determined mostly by when we thought we would die. 

As of this writing my mother’s best friend is 96.  Many mornings when I am entering the gym at 9 or 9:30, she is on her way out.  She has already finished her workout.  She peddles the bike for 15 minutes, she uses the rowing machine for 15 minutes and then she does the weight machine circuit.  She drives herself there and then she heads to Trader Joe’s for her daily shopping expedition.  She is one of my heroines.  She had a broken tibia when she was 94 and was in rehab for almost 9 months.  I was sure that was “it” for her.  I couldn’t imagine her recovering from such a break at such an advanced age.  It’s good I didn’t share that with her because she never doubted she was going to heal and return to living in her own home on her own and back to a full, rich life and so she did!

Have you listened to what people say about their health?  Have you had the opportunity to hear people speak about their memories, their backs, their knees, eyes, hearing, stomachs, etc?  It seems a day never passes when someone isn’t claiming that age is the reason for some ailment with which they are dealing.  People seem to be looking for a reason why they are deteriorating and it’s so easy to claim it’s age related. 

Dr. Andrew Weil had a PBS special on how to live a healthier older life.  He recognized that the body does change.  We are always changing and that we might need to make adjustments as we go along.  Most of us seem to fall into that category and then there are the people who are in their 80's or 90's and are still running marathons.  What works for one simply may not work for another.  We need to create a personal life plan for each individual.

My cousin’s mother was almost 100 when she was diagnosed with dementia.  Of course, they were told, it was a normal condition for someone her age.  Another physician asked the family if their mother had been tested for a thyroid problem.  No, she had not been tested.  A few days after beginning the proper medication, she was back to her normal self. 

Do yourself a favor, don’t claim your ailments.  Certainly, they can be a part of your life but let them be just that, a part of your life.  Don’t let them determine who you are.  Don’t identify with them.  Even a serious diagnosis does not have to determine your identity.  I have met more people who introduce themselves to me by telling me about their physical challenges.  Sometimes, it’s the first thing they tell me after their name.  I want to shout “Get behind me Satan!  Don’t do that!  You are greater than whatever ailment you’re dealing with.  Find another way to view yourself, to view your problem.”  Truly, it’s not a lack of compassion on my part.  It’s actually very compassionate.  I want to tell them they are injuring themselves even further by focusing on their diagnosis.  Put it aside, put it on a shelf and go do something fun or better yet, go do something for someone else. 

You have the power to heal yourself!  It is within all of us.  Claim it!  Yes, it may mean making some changes, getting help.  It may mean medication, surgery, a change in diet or exercise but listen closely and you will know what you need to do to help yourself.  But, the first thing you need to do is to not identify with your diagnosis.  You need to find a way to make peace, to just allow it to be and to move away and forward.  You’ve seen them and you’ve met them, people who don’t only refuse to allow their ailments and disabilities interfere with their lives but who thrive in spite of them.  It is possible for all of us. 

What do you think the Olympic Athletes tell themselves?  Do you think they focus on their aches, pains or ailments?  What about Oscar Pistorius, the "fastest man on no legs." He's had a double below the knee amputation and runs on two artificial limbs.  He competed in the 2012 London Olympics.  How hard do you think that was? 

Rachel Naomi Remen in Kitchen Table Wisdom speaks about healing.  She says that sometimes we will not be cured but we can always be healed.  What we think about, we bring about.  You might be dealing with a serious illness but if you choose your thoughts carefully, you will know you are a glorious creature of God.  You are beautiful!  You are amazing!  You still have a life to live and love to bestow!  We need to hold onto the belief that the Best is yet to come and that we get to choose whether or not to believe it and whether or not we will create it.

Once again, we get to choose.  We decided day to day, moment to moment how we perceive ourselves; how we perceive our abilities; how we perceive our bodies.  It's our greatest power.  It's the one thing we have total (at most times) control over.  Claim your health!  Claim your strength!  Whatever it is that is interfering with your optimal health needs to be reframed, adjusted.  You may not have to put on two artificial limbs, thank God, but maybe you need to put on an artificial aid, a new thought process to enable you to compete in the race of life.

“Healing may not be so much about getting better, as about letting go of everything that isn’t you - all of the expectations, all of the beliefs - and becoming who you are.”

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Dancing for Life

Affirmation:  I smile early, laugh daily, dance often.

In most cultures dance is an integral part of life.  Here in the United States one must make a greater effort to find the opportunity to dance.  Lately in the media there’s more about dance than in the last fifty years. There’s Dancing with the Stars and there’s So You Think You Can Dance.  Even the 2012 Olympic Gold Medal winner, Ryan Lochte is interested in dancing.  When he was interviewed on Good Morning America he said he would like the opportunity to compete on Dancing with the Stars.  And, too, Hope Solo, the 2012 goalie of the Gold Medal Olympic soccer team competed in 2011 on Dancing with the Stars.  And, the Olympic Gold Medalist Apolo Ohno speed skating champion, danced his way to the Mirror Ball Trophy.

Now too, we have all sorts of dance exercise.  The gym I go to, Rex Wellness of Cary has had a Latin dance class for many years and of course there’s aerobics which usually has some sort of upbeat tunes.  As of this writing, Zumba has become very popular.  And, most yoga classes have music in the background.

Yoga is not normally thought of as a form of dance exercise but I have always felt the vibrations and the rhythm of the music as I practiced the asanas.  When I trained at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Healing we had several wonderful classes that included live drum music. The Dance Yoga concept (formerly Dance Kinetics) was actually developed at Kripalu. At the Pink Ribbon Yoga Retreat Saturday evenings are celebrated with Yoga Dance.

TJ Martin, one of our gifted yoga teachers and a founding member of the retreat, has led us in Yoga Dance for the last eight years.  Of course, there are many different reactions to our dance event.  Some, like myself, can’t wait.

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron asks you to imagine what you would like to do if you had several other lives.  It’s a fun exercise to see what you might be missing that you could actually do in this life.  I would have loved to be more actively involved in the world of dance.  There have been times in my life when the music led me to total abandonment.  I love going shopping with my granddaughter, Isabelle, because she’ll just smile if she sees me dancing about in the store, unlike my children, who I am sure were mortified by their mother’s lack of decorum. 

Many of the women who come to the retreat have been there before but everyone has had that initial introduction to our evening of Yoga Dance.   TJ does a marvelous job of explaining how the session is structured.  She explains that each of the songs are designed to open one of the seven chakras, energy centers of the body.  A yoga practice with or without dance can aid in opening the energy centers. The seven chakras begin at the base of the spine, the Root Chakra and run through the body to the top of the head, the Crown Chakra.  Envision a stream of energy or light, moving up through your body, flowing freely, keeping everything open and clean and soft.  Ancient yoga tradition teaches when the chakras are opened and aligned, we are balanced and in a state that encourages optimal health.

TJ brings some props too.  She brings feather boas and mesh scarves.  Some of the women bring coin skirts.  At our last retreat two of the returning ladies came to the evening session a little late.  They attempted to come in quietly so as to not disturb the group, the only issue was they had on their coin skirts and had added bell bracelets and anklets.  They also were in full flowing skirts and had silk flowers in their hair.  The fun had begun!

TJ begins our evening by inviting us to sit on our mats.  We move slowly at first.  One of the songs for the 1st chakra is Breathe.  Then she invites us to stand up and we move to songs like Feeling Good by Michael Buble. Then the energy begins to increase and for the 3rd chakra we get to dance to Shake Your Body and New Attitude for example.  The next set of songs include songs like We Are Family, Walk of Life, You Raise Me Up and Loka Samasta. Can you hear it?  Can you feel it?  Finally, we’re ready to wind down and we do that to songs like The Empty Sky.

Yoga dance is one of the healing modalities we offer for the retreat.  One year one of the participants did not seem to connect with anyone or anything that was being offered.  We would find her sitting in the living room watching TV while everyone else was chatting.  She wasn’t very interested in the art projects and her favorite yoga pose was savasana.  And, then during Yoga Dance we reached the songs for the 3rd chakra.    I happened to be directly across from her when the music began and it was one of the most astonishing things I have ever seen.  A grin came to her face, she lit up from within and she began to dance with total abandonment.  She didn’t stop until we were ready to lie down.  Her enthusiasm and love of music took her to a place during the retreat that nothing else was able to accomplish.  From then on, she was an integral part of the group.  People took the time to tell her how much they enjoyed watching her and dancing with her.

There have also been women who refused to dance.  I try not to judge but I wasn’t always successful.  But if they return, sooner or later (sometimes years later) something happens and I will look up and there they will be moving and smiling, and many times laughing.  It is so very joyful.  It is so very healing.

I believe we can enhance our health by sometimes tricking our bodies to think we are feeling good.  I once read a story about a man who played the music for silent films.  He was asked if it was hard to play music that went with the feelings of the scenes.  He answered he didn’t concern himself with that.  The music he chose created the emotions the viewers experienced.

If you’re sad and you don’t want to be, smile.  If you’re feeling blue and you don’t want to be, laugh.  And, if you want to fully embrace life and go a little crazy, turn on the music and dance.

“Dance as though no one is watching you,

Love as though you have never been hurt before,

Sing as though no one can hear you,

Live as though heaven is on earth.”  Dr. William W. Purkey

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Miraculous Happenings

Affirmation: My life is Joy filled, Miracles occur, Love surrounds me and permeates every aspect of my existence.

We all know that in the classic Alice in Wonderland, Alice jumps down a rabbit hole into a whole other unknown, full of adventure, self-examining world.  Sometimes we are pushed down that hole and sometimes we choose to jump but either way, we get to decide what we'll learn and what we'll take away from our experiences.

After being treated for breast cancer in 1999, I was left feeling very unsure of what I should be doing for myself.  During the intense treatment, which for me lasted almost a year, I was well cared for and in constant contact with my doctors and other caregivers.  Then the day came when I was "released." I had had my last radiation treatment.  We, the family and I, actually threw an "end of radiation celebration." Sure, I was scheduled for follow up mammograms and yearly checkups but other than that I was on my own.  Yes, in many ways we are always "on our own" as we go through cancer but for me, being released, while a reason for celebration, was also very scary.  I began looking for those things that might help me feel supported, educated and uplifted.

As a long time yoga practitioner, I turned to the yoga world to see what might be out there.  It was in 2000 that I made my first trip to Kripalu Yoga Center in The Berkshires of Massachusetts.  It was there that I had the thought about creating a yoga retreat for breast cancer survivors.  I envisioned several days at the beach, yogaing, resting, swimming, talking, and breathing!  In 2005 the first Pink Ribbon Yoga Retreat for women breast cancer survivors became a reality.   My jump down the rabbit hole had taken me to one of the most amazing, fulfilling adventures of my life.

As of this writing here in 2012, a few hundred women have experienced all the things I envisioned and so much more than I ever imagined.  This retreat has been Spirit Driven and Divinely Blessed since its inception.  Have you ever been involved in something like this, something that takes on a life of its own, something that comes together and blossoms with a miraculous aura?

I have never approached an individual or an organization that has not generously agreed to help us in whatever way they could.  The first person to say yes was Rhonda Bailey, a yoga instructor and friend.  She set the standard for everyone else.  After that, with the support of The Duke Cancer Patient Support program, we were ready to go.  Our teachers generously volunteer their time and talent.  Our friends and family come forward every year to help defray the costs and to provide scholarships for those who are unable to pay. One woman took it upon herself to buy cushy beach towels for everyone.  We had homemade biscotti and pound cake.  A local ice-cream shop donated sundaes for everyone and one of our committee members made the supreme effort to go taste several of the flavors beforehand.  Every year we raise enough money with the efforts of my husband, Sandy, to help pay for anyone who wants to come on scholarship.  It’s phenomenal how it all comes together and it’s obvious to all of us there that the success of this event is beyond anything most of us have ever experienced.  It has to have the hand of God in it.

Who comes to a retreat like this?  Well, obviously, women who have experienced breast cancer.  (Although we have many people who want to come but don’t want to qualify to come.) But, really what type of individual attends an event like this?  I am here to tell you, they are amazing individuals.  They come from all over the country.  Most of the women have heard something about what goes on but it really is an unknown entity.  Many have never practiced yoga; many come without knowing anyone else.  Some are in the middle of treatment others have been out of treatment for years.  They don’t know what the accommodations are like, who their roommate may be or what the food is like but they come anyway.  They are the type of person who isn’t afraid to jump down the rabbit hole.  They are amazing, brave, adventurous human beings and when we gather we get to share the adventure.
The focus of the retreat, believe it or not, is not breast cancer.  Yes, we all have that in common and yes, the subject comes up and people share experiences and more often than not, they share what worked for them.  The focus of the retreat is living life to the fullest.  Each year, as in most yoga practices, we take an intention.  The first year the intention was that “it was a joyful experience for Everyone involved.”  One year we focused on an “Open Heart.”  We also took the intention to “Stay in the Moment.”  In 2008, our intention was to “Marvel in the Mystery.”

The retreat provides multiple healing modalities.  Besides yoga, which in itself is multi-dimensional; there’s the ocean, art-therapy, massage therapy, silent walks and Yoga Dance.  Some people relate to some and not to other modalities.  Other people need a little bit of all of them but either way they all lead to an increased sense of well-being and support. 
We begin and end the retreat with a Sharing Circle.  I’m sure there are many such rituals involved with other gatherings but I was introduced to this ritual at Kripalu.  There are many guidelines.  The first, of course, is confidentiality.  We go on to talk about using the “I” word, not the community “we.”  Only one person is allowed to speak at a time and it’s highly recommended that everyone actively listen and not plan what they might want to say.  In between each speaker we take a collective in breath and sigh it out.  We imagine clearing the psychic white board in the middle of the circle.  There are other suggestions but these are the main ones.  What happens during the circles? What happens during the four days?  Miracles occur.

Miracles, you say?  What is miraculous about ice-cream and beach towels and homemade goodies?  Well, for one thing they simply appear, like the manna in the dessert.  We never ask for these treasures.  But, what is really miraculous is what happens to the mind, body and spirit of each of the ladies and our one man (He’s the breast cancer counselor for the DCPSP.)  by the end of the four days.  A light comes on in each person.  There has been healing; there’s been a renewed sense of hope.  The women have found camaraderie and acceptance.  We have laughed, cried, played, swam, created, danced and done yoga.  We have found power, the power in each of us and as a group.  The event is laced with miracles especially the overwhelming feeling of love that permeates each person including me, as the retreat comes to a close.
If you’re interested in attending, you can look us up on