Friday, March 28, 2014

Just Breathe

Affirmation:  When I focus on my breath, I feel calmer and when I am very attentive to it, I recognize I am connecting to the Divine. 

Jill Sockman led the class.  It was at the third annual Yoga Fest in Raleigh, NC.  This was Howie Shareff's inspiration.  He heads an organization called "You Call This Yoga" and his organization was sponsoring this event. There were over 500 people attending the day long workshop and I had been "called" to be one of them.  I hadn't felt any inclination to attend either of the first two but the message had come through to me loud and clear that I was supposed to be at his year's Yoga Fest.  I didn't know anyone else who was attending and I had a trip the next day for which I needed to pack but that interior voice was screaming at me, "Go, you need to go" and so, I did.

I would be taking four classes over the course of the day and I didn't know one teacher from the other.  They all looked interesting and I know I can always learn something new from any experience so it didn't really matter to me which class I took.  I decided to trust that whichever class in which I found myself it would be exactly the class I was supposed to take.  

The first class was good, very good.  The room was packed and I learned a breathing technique I had not consistently applied to my practice.  Nice!  The next class was titled "Finding Your Edge."  I wasn't really sure I wanted to participate in a dynamic flow class, which is what I assumed this class would be but I was signed up for it and following my own advice, I decided to stay for it.  It was not very good, it was inspirational.  Jill was a master teacher.  She was young and wispy and confident and all that is nice but those are not the qualities not that make a teacher a master.  She was wise and she clearly imparted her wisdom in a concise, universal language.  This, I knew was why I had been led to come to Yoga Fest.  Where was my recorder? 

Jill began by reminding us to take a full deep breath and to fill our lungs and chest and a deliberate exhale with a reminder to draw in our belly buttons to our spine and engage our Mula Bandha (the pelvic floor).  We then went on with some Kapalahbati breathing, she incorporated several series of Ohms and she then ended with another round of Kapalahbati.  I felt an internal shift take place.  I "returned" to Kripalu, the home of my training and a place where I had absorbed the positive, calming energy of the yoga practice. 

The breath is the foundation of life.  We begin life with our first inhale and we end life with our last exhale and yet, how many times during our day do we even notice our breathing?  A dear friend gave me a plaque one day that said, "Things I need to do today, Breathe."  One of the most important yogic tools is the breath.  There are dozens of different types of breathing, some are slow and deep, others are more like panting and some require one to hold one nostril closed and alternate between the two.  Yoga is not just a series of poses or asanas.  The ancient writings of Patanjali, the father of yoga, describes eight limbs or disciplines involved in the practice of yoga.  The breathing or Pranayama is one of them.  They all interweave with each other.  When you unite your breath with your movements, you unite your mind with your body and with your spirit.  It's a very powerful tool.  I like to start my yoga classes by inviting the practitioners to watch their breath.  "Watch the rise and the fall, the in and the out, the up and the down. Do not judge. There's no right or wrong, no good or bad.  Just notice."  Calm penetrates the atmosphere of the room.  It's palpable.  I decided I was at Jill's class to be reminded of how powerful life can be when I choose to focus on my breath. 

In the ten week course on Mindful Meditation at Duke's Integrative Medicine, the main teaching is how to calm the mind and therefore the body by simply sitting quietly and watching the breath.  The basic teaching is to "watch" the breath and when thoughts come along, which they always do, notice them, release them and go back to watching your breath.  Most meditation practices focus on the breath.  Many practices also invite you to create a mantra, a word that you can repeat over and over.  I'd like to claim to be a devoted meditating but I am not.  I pray, I journal but I have only meditated sporadically, not religiously, even though I truly believe it's one of the best paths to optimal mental and physical health.  When I have meditated and searched for a mantra, I found myself focusing on the word, "Jesus."  My inhale led me to "Jees" and my exhale to "us."  Then I realized that even if I'm not in a meditative state, I'm always breathing and I could use my mantra any time I stopped and took a deep breath.  "Jesus"  It was a short prayer, a short prayer that brought me home to my God.  Now, all I needed to do was to put the exercise into practice, to make a conscious choice to take that deep breath whenever I possibly could, whenever I would think to do so.

The focus of my daily reading during the month of February in Spiritual Insights is on meditation.  Actually, any of the self-help books I've ever picked up have at least one section devoted to meditation.  I am presently reading Richard Rohr's, The Naked Now.  He too speaks about the breath.  He explains that the Hebrew term for God, Yahweh, is believed to be derived from four sounds, Yod Hay Vov Hay.  The sound of breathing.  It was such a sacred sound, the name of God, that the Hebrews rarely spoke it.  They didn't need to speak it, they honored God, brought God to them, into them with every breath.  The breath is the life giving force which sustains us and which, if we choose, can keep us connected to the Divine. 

I think I've figured out that I was "called" to Yoga Fest for several reasons, some of which I may not even know just yet but one of the reasons I believe was to help me refocus on the importance of paying attention to my breathing.  I've had a really rough start in 2014 and I'd lost touch with my breathing practice.  It was a wonderful gift to receive from Jill and the other yoga instructors.  It's interesting to me how often my yoga practice helps me to strengthen my faith and helps me to reconnect with my God.  It's amazing that something so simple, breathing, can be so complex and so very powerful.  Join me, "Take a deep breath, and exhale fully. Again. One more time." When I focus on my breath, I feel calmer and when I am very attentive to it, I recognize I am connecting to the Divine.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Secret Ingredient

Affirmation: Even when I am doing little things of service, I include a large amount of love.

What's your favorite food?  Everyone has a favorite.  It's a great question to start a conversation or to open a group discussion because it seems as if most people have an immediate answer.  My favorite food has always been my mother's chocolate chip cookies.  Her cookies were probably the reason I could never lose those extra five pounds I've always wanted to lose.  She's told me it's simply the recipe on the back of the Toll House Chocolate Chip package but I don't believe her.  I think there's a secret ingredient, perhaps one of which she's not even aware.  It's a mystery!  I'm not the only one who loved her chocolate chip cookies.  They were a favorite for the whole family, especially my son Joey.  For years she baked him a special batch.  "Those are only for Joey."  I think he was one of her favorite grandsons.  Recently, I've had other people tell me she baked special batches of cookies for them too.  "She told me, these were only for me."

I have many friends who like to bake.  It's a gift to be a baker.  It runs in our family.  My mother passed on her love and skill to both my youngest daughter, Ellen, my sister's daughter, Samantha and to my brother's daughter, Stacy.  The food doesn't just taste good but it looks yummy. I was stunned when during one of my visits to Ellen; she asked me if I'd like to see her journal.  I couldn't even imagine where this offer was leading.  Was she going to confess some deep dark secret or worse yet have one of those mother-daughter "come to Jesus" conversations?  Then she pulled out her baking journal.  It was beautiful. She had all the recipes she'd been trying and the adjustments recorded to make them more to her liking and photos of the cookies and cakes.  I was honored to have her share her passion with me. 

It seems to me the thing about baking is that most bakers want to share their treats with their friends, family and whomever they think would enjoy them.  I watched my mom and I've watched other bakers go about giving away their cookies to whomever they wanted to grace. It didn't need to be a special occasion.  It might just be because someone needed a pick-me-up or perhaps it was a way to say "thank you."  My mom would give her yummy cookies to the hair dresser, the auto mechanic, the nurse and doctors she frequented, to an ailing friend or perhaps to her friend's caregiver.  They were always warmly and graciously received.  Many times our Christmas presents to her were fancy "cookie" boxes with her initials on them or several cookie tins with varying designs.  She even began saving some of the small used plastic containers from the grocery so she could package up just two or three cookies and present them.  I envy people who like to bake.  I too would like to be seen as a warm, generous person who says "thank you" with a tangible yummy treat but, I don't like to bake, especially cookies.  So, I wondered what I could share in a similar manner.

I've decided there is no substitute.  There is nothing as heartwarming as a homemade treat.  Let's face it even if you're not eating sugar or can't eat sugar, the gift still warms your heart.  You know someone really cares and they've taken the time and the energy necessary to let you know.  Perhaps sharing food in any way brings those same warm feelings.  I've been to many events where people showed up with food as a form of love and support.  My experience of living in the Midwest and now here in the South affirms that belief.  If someone has a tragedy or is going through a difficult time, people bring meals.  During my many months of cancer treatment we were supported with some of the best meals I've ever eaten and on the flip side, I've dropped off meals whenever the opportunity presented itself.  I usually make dinner and include some sort of chocolate candy.  I don't bake.  I do, however, make every effort to be affable and caring on a daily basis. 

As I go through my day, I readily share a smile.  I have found it uplifts not only my spirits but usually the recipient too.  I'm an avid hugger.  I learned that skill from my husband, Sandy and my mother-in-law, Yolanda.  I know not everyone wants to be hugged.  If I'm not sure I open my arms and hesitate.  It's usually fairly obvious if it's not welcomed.  That doesn't happen very often.  I love to send snail-mail birthday cards with a blessing over them and a few loving words inside.  I know these small gestures do not hold a candle to a good chocolate chip cookie but it's my way of letting people know they are loved; they are an important part of my life.  I value them and their relationship. 

My mom, Margaret Grolimund, passed away this week.  We included in her obituary the fact that she was famous for her chocolate chip cookies.  When I spoke to the presided of her Requiem Mass, Father Doug Reed, I shared her notoriety and he wanted to know her recipe.  I told him what she said that it was simply the recipe on the back of the Toll House Chocolate Chip package.  I, however, knew she was not sharing the secret ingredient.  Now, I know why.  I don't think she was aware of it.  It was magical!  Her secret ingredient was her love.  She made those cookies, cakes and pies with a heart filled with love.  We all show love in different ways.  This was my Mom's way and she did it marvelously. Love is the secret ingredient in every special gift we share with another.  It's that one thing that tells someone, "These are only for you." I love you.