I went car/motorhome camping a few weekends ago with some girlfriends. We experienced a lot of “firsts” so were able to use the Hebrew word Shehecheyanu many times. The word is part of a Jewish blessing that is traditionally recited the first time you do something each Jewish calendar year, such as light the menorah the first night of Hanukkah, or celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, as well as mark joyous and special occasions.  

Six women standing with life vests, helmets, getting ready to go rafting.
Ready to Raft!

I used the word to commemorate my first time driving a motor home. Another friend used it to celebrate her first raft trip down a river. I also believe the blessing is meant to recognize the miracle of arriving in the present moment. I may be giving Shehecheyanu my own spin, but I appreciate the spirit of the practice. Acknowledging my first motorhome driving experience gave me a starting point to observe myself awakening to new, and maybe not-so-new, moments in a different way.

Isn’t each day unique, even if we go to the same places every day or do the same things? We’ve never woken up on Thursday, July 9, 2021 before today. (I’m posting this on the first day of July 9, 2021.) We have arrived on this day after waking on countless other mornings.

As we gradually emerge from the pandemic’s lockdowns, we may have many “firsts.” The first time we eat inside a restaurant since April 2020; visit and hug our far-flung or right-next-door family and friends; attend an in-person yoga class, church service, book club, or gym. Each day will have its special firsts, different for each of us. How exciting! And maybe a bit challenging!

One of my dearest, closest friends had a stroke a few weeks ago. I spoke with him and he is in wonderment at living in a rehabilitation facility. “It’s like being on a yoga retreat,” he exclaimed. “I take three classes (therapy sessions) a day. I receive healthy meals in my room. I rest every afternoon for a while.” His recent firsts include taking one step without assistance, learning to use his left leg, and holding a spoon. This is a man who was playing on yoga ropes two days before the stroke. He sounds like a three year old in his excitement. His perspective is of wonderment, not depression, although he does have those moments, too. 

Where does this discussion of firsts leave us? For me, I intend to be open to what I’m experiencing in the present moment, rather than in reconstructing what I felt in a prior experience. For example, the “first” time of post-pandemic restaurant indoor dining, I felt weird, a little scared, and a lot happy. Those emotions were part of what was happening in that moment.  I wasn’t the same person as I was pre-pandemic. The restaurant had changed its policies. Nothing was the same in what used to be a normal occurrence. Remembering that nothing is ever the same the second time and beyond, I aspire to meet each breath, yoga pose, walk, and experience as a first. I aspire to be fully alive.

I encourage you to pay attention as you safely emerge from the way your life has been since March 2020. As you greet old friends, can you meet them with open eyes and ears to acquaint yourself with how they are now, today, without the overlay of prior knowledge? None of us is the same. Let’s join together in gratitude for our arrival at this place and time for the first time.

Expanding Equanimity: Southern Dharma In-Person Retreat with Cindy, August 4-8

According to yogic and Buddhist philosophy, there are four noble qualities, known in the Buddhist tradition as the Four Immeasurables: loving kindness, compassion, equanimity, and sympathetic joy. We are all born with the seeds of these traits, and with practice we can cultivate them to develop strength, steadiness, and openness in any situation—independent of external conditions.

Although these four qualities are inter-related, in this workshop we will explore Equanimity as a means to remain openhearted during times of tension and strife, whether personal or global. Equanimity is freedom from powerful reactions, positive or negative, to another person or an event—the ability to be even and open-minded toward everyone, no matter how they behave. This practice brings clarity to situations where we may be moved to react from passion or bias. Expanding our view to one of engaged impartiality allows us to respond to life’s challenges with wisdom—even at times with a sense of humor.

Over the four days, we’ll explore Equanimity through yoga poses, meditations, mindfulness exercises, and breath awareness.  

Although this annual workshop with Cindy is now full, it’s always worth it to put your name on the waiting list. Cancellations do happen, and you might get lucky!  And if this retreat doesn’t work for you this time around, check out all the other amazing retreats you can enjoy at Southern Dharma over the coming months. 

For more detailed information, pricing, and important vaccination requirements, and to put your name on the waiting list, click here.

[Cindy will be assisted on this retreat by Tammy Kaousias. Tammy teaches yoga in Knoxville, TN, and has studied with Cindy for over a decade.]

Letting Go and Wanting to Know

As mask wearing and social restrictions ease now that vaccinations are slowing the spread of COVID-19, I’m concerned about the changes to the rules I was used to following. I feel like we went from very cautious to wide open. I’m not saying that this is so. I’m saying that it feels that way to me. Yes, I’m happy to be able to gather with friends out in the open. It doesn’t matter to me if they are vaccinated or not. Yes, I’m concerned about being with those same people inside in close quarters. It just feels weird. 

As I write these words, I realize that my skin has been tight for more than a year. Although internally I feel open, on the outside my physical form has been guarding me from an unseen virus. Even my pores are tense. I just stopped writing and took a breath. I consciously released my skin. I feel better. This to me is what yoga is about: conscious awareness of the present moment experience. The physical form is always in the present. The mind wanders and wonders.

Photo by Alexey Murzin on Unsplash

One of my favorite images of mind is that of a still lake. A quiet lake reflects the sky. A quiet mind reflects pure awareness, our true nature.  When the lake or the mind becomes disturbed, there is no clear reflection, only turbulence. This is what happens when we bounce around trying to make a decision. This or that? Should I or shouldn’t I? When we are in “either/or” we are smack in the middle of duality and not in a place of clarity. Yet, once we see theses waves as passing thoughts, we can dive deeply into the quiet stillness below the surface, or we can watch them from the stable shore of awareness. We practice asana, pranayama, and meditation to prevent getting caught in the storm to begin with. At any moment that we recognize the fluctuations, we’re out of them. How to stay there? Cease to give them your attention. Easier said than done, I know. 

Once you realize that you’re engulfed, give your mind something more wholesome to do, something to focus on. Feel your body. Is it tense? Where? What’s happening right now? Say a prayer. Chant om. Get upside down. Sit still. Go for a ride. Call a friend. Breathe. Consciously relax. Accept that you don’t know the future. Look up and out. These all work for me.

Where does all this musing leave us with decision making as many gyms and yoga studios open up to in-person classes? Honestly, I don’t know. We each must make our own decisions from a place of clarity. What should I do, as a student and as a teacher? Part of me wants to know exactly how to act. Give me some hard and fast rules. Ha! I’m the one who wants some flexibility, some leeway to adjust both on the mat and in life. Moment to moment, I observe and respond. I don’t have to know the future. How I am now determines my future. I can’t know what the world will be in two days or two months. Sometimes I feel we humans think that if we know the future, we will be safer or at least feel safer. As we learn to negotiate not-knowing, we deepen our understanding of being authentic and available to ourselves in the present moment.

Right now I know that I’m not ready to open my home studio to groups of students. The space is small and I feel like we would be too close together for the comfort of all. I don’t know how long I will feel like this. I will let you know when I am ready. In the meantime, I’ll continue with Zooming from my home studio and through Zoom classes hosted by Sunrise Yoga. Although virtual classes are obviously less intimate than in-person classes, please know that I do see you “out there” and feel connected to you.

If an “in-person” group is what you’re in need of, please consider joining me at the yoga and mindfulness residential retreat at the spacious Southern Dharma Retreat Center in August. Read about it here.

Reflections on the Present

Yesterday I received a four-page letter from my friend, Adam. He spoke of getting a job in the prison, feeding the crows in the yard, meditating while living in a barracks, and getting up at 5am to find a quiet time for his yoga practice. He recounted in detail his gratitude to be earning money, his excitement of hearing the raucous caw of the crow, the feeble light at 5am, and the expansion of his body on the yoga mat.

Image © Pascale Parinda 2021

I sat down to write back to him and wondered how I could find any events in my life to fill four pages. All I’ve done is teach yoga classes on Zoom, meet with students privately (and masked), walk, meditate, watch my husband cook, eat, and clean up. That doesn’t seem like much. Oh, and I’ve zoomed with friends for happy visits, taken some online philosophy and yoga classes, played and laughed with my grand-nephew. I didn’t even drive very much except for that one two-week motorhome trip to Florida to national parks. That about sums it up. What is there to say about that? Hmmm. Seems like I should have more going on, even during a pandemic.

So I sat and pondered. I took the time to reflect on my life during this past year since March of 2020. What I realized is that although I feel like I haven’t “done” much, I’ve observed quite a bit. Not doing has opened me to sacred idleness, momentary snippets of awareness during the day. How often do I look at the big picture of doing and miss the divine details of being alive? When I stop to pay attention, I see the ladybug on the windowsill. I notice the breeze wafting through the window. I smell the fresh cut grass. I’m present to now rather than getting something done— although the windowsill does get dusted. The ladybug moves along and the breeze lets up.

Image © Pascale Parinda 2021

I suspect that many of us wake up and get on with the day. Perhaps the routine is wake up, eat, work, exercise, tend to the family, make dinner, watch TV, and go to bed. Repeat. The routine might not change, although the details certainly do. What did you eat for your first meal today? Did you taste your food? Was it sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent, or pungent? What was the texture of the food?

While writing this essay, I talked with a dear friend of mine who deals with back pain on a daily basis. She spoke of present moment awareness, of living fully regardless of her circumstances. She said that although she often cannot move around because of the pain, she lives her life in “sound bites” of activity when she can. Those sound bites are wonderful, she asserts. She refuses to let the pain rule her emotional wellbeing. She, like Adam, accepts the situation and makes the most of the circumstances. What arises in you when you can’t do what you want to? Can you take a breather and be still long enough to be alive to the world around you? Perhaps this is all you need to do right now.

Suggestion: Take five minutes now to do nothing except sit and notice. Simply observe the world around you, whether inside or outdoors. Become aware of sounds, sights, tactile sensations, tastes, and smells. No judging. Simply notice. No narrative. Feel your body. Use this sound bite of time to reset your clock to now. Then do what needs to be done. You may discover that you’ve already done enough.

May you be fully present to being alive as you go about your day of doing.

Upcoming Workshop & Retreat

Move & Renew: Cindy Dollar Spring Virtual Workshop 
at Sunrise Yoga
Sunday, April 25th, 9am-11am

Sick of being stuck in the Covid doldrums? Join Cindy for a morning filled with chest openers and twists to help reset our mindset & move our bodies. Spring is the perfect season to get on the mat and out of our heads!This workshop will be recorded and available for viewing for two weeks after the event.

Price: $30
Members of Sunrise Yoga receive 10% discount.

Click here to register.

Expanding Equanimity: Southern Dharma Retreat with Cindy
August 4 – 8 
Registration opens June 1, 2021

According to yogic and Buddhist philosophy, there are four noble qualities, known in the Buddhist tradition as the Four Immeasurables: loving kindness, compassion, equanimity, and sympathetic joy. We are all born with the seeds of these traits, and with practice we can cultivate them to develop strength, steadiness, and openness in any situation—independent of external conditions.

Although these four qualities are inter-related, in this workshop we will explore Equanimity as a means to remain openhearted during times of tension and strife, whether personal or global. Equanimity is freedom from powerful reactions, positive or negative, to another person or an event—the ability to be even and open-minded toward everyone, no matter how they behave. This practice brings clarity to situations where we may be moved to react from passion or bias. Expanding our view to one of engaged impartiality allows us to respond to life’s challenges with wisdom—even at times with a sense of humor.

Over the four days, we’ll explore Equanimity through yoga poses, meditations, mindfulness exercises, and breath awareness. 

For a more detailed description of this annual workshop, click here. 

The price and preliminary retreat schedule are for the at home version. In the event that Southern Dharma resumes on site programs, we’ll update the price, schedule, and the program description to reflect these changes, prior to registration opening.

Prices for virtual retreat:
$200.00 – Base
$280.00 – Supporter
$120.00 – Subsidized

Cindy will be assisted on this retreat by Tammy Kaousias.

Staying Open to Uncertainty

I answered a phone call from my friend, Adam, on Tuesday night. His voice broke as he spoke of leaving the known maximum-security prison for an unknown minimum-security destination. He has been in prison for five years and was being transferred to a new “camp”—as inmates call prison. Would he be bullied? Would he get a job in that camp? As he shared his concerns, he finally said, “I know it is fear of the unknown. I want to stay open.” 

After we hung up, I considered that most of us, if we’re honest, fear the unknown. Although we live with uncertainty every day, this past year has magnified this fear. Will we or a loved one contract Covid? When can those who want the vaccine get it?  As a result of the pandemic, many people are struggling financially, unemployed, or at risk of losing a home. How will they manage? It’s a lot to deal with. The truth is, we don’t know what will happen—now, next week, or a year from now.  Although these fears may be worrisome, worry is not preparation. Anxiety is about the future, not the present. Sometimes, in one moment, we might need to prepare intentionally by planning appropriately for the future. That’s different.

I commend Adam for his willingness to acknowledge his fear and his intention to stay open. He’s not running away from his fear, not checking out. He has used his time in incarceration to read the Bible, meditate, and practice yoga. He quarantined in his room to put his legs up the wall. When the cacophonous voices of other inmates intruded on his solitude, he stopped the narrative by turning his mind to the aspiration of wishing for all beings to be free, in thought, if not in circumstance. He used the tools that he learned, rather than letting them languish in the toolbox. He’s my hero.

Another hero of mine is Betty, an 89-year-old student who recently passed away, a few weeks shy of her 90th birthday. She came to yoga without being able to get up and down off of the floor. She persevered. She used chairs, walls, and the moral support of other students. Betty used the tools that were available. She never said, “I can’t.”  She always, and I mean always, said, “I believe I can.”

You can, too. What tools do you have to help you to stay stable in times of fear and uncertainty? Here are a few reminders and some tools that I rely on:

  • Suspend the fear-based narrative in your head. Track the sensation of anxiety where it lives in your body, and ease it with gentle breaths.
  • Get on the yoga mat, even if all you do is get there. Find a different point of view from there by twisting, getting upside down, or lying down and looking up.
  • Connect with a wise friend by phone or a walk (socially distanced, of course).
  • Read contemplative books for inspiration or a novel for a short escape. 
  • Take an online course of something you’ve been interested in and haven’t yet pursued.
  • Take a walk in nature and listen for birdsong. 
  • Pet your cat. Snuggle with your dog.
Photo by Pascale Parinda

On Sunday I received another call from Adam. He transferred to a facility six hours from where I live, a long way for me to drive to visit him. He lives in a dorm-like situation with 32 other men. He reports that his fears were ungrounded and that the inmates treat each other with kindness and respect. The camp offers courses in diesel mechanics and landscaping, both of which interest him. He remains open to the unknowable future. 

Can we remain steady, kind, respectful, and open to uncertainty?  

I believe we can. 

Season of Light

I write this on December 20th, one day before the winter solstice—the shortest day and longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. I look forward to this time because I know, even if I can’t see it, that the days will become longer and brighter. During these dark days, I appreciate the lights of the season. Candles are lit for eight consecutive nights in the Jewish menorah during Hanukkah. Red, green, and black candles mark Kwanza’s winter celebration. I adore the Moravian star and the bright, multi-colored Christmas lights. Light penetrates the darkness.

Most of us would agree that 2020 has been a dark year. Millions of people around the world have experienced physical, mental, emotional, and financial suffering due to Covid-19. We could (and sometimes do) get overwhelmed with the ongoing death and destitution of hundreds of thousands of our neighbors around the planet.

Yet, the light shines through. A vaccine becomes available. People join their masked neighbors to walk. Friends from opposite sides of the world gather in Zoom happy hours. We are wired for connection. All is not dark. 

However, we will see what we look for, whether light or dark, kind or mean. And, if we honestly look, we will see both. This is a tricky place. How do we recognize the sadness and feel compassion for all who are affected (including ourselves), and simultaneously recognize and feel grateful for the ever-present light of the love of this season? We don’t have to choose between them. Through equanimity we hold space around them both. This on-going practice requires us to expand our awareness so that our mind is not disturbed by the play of opposites. With equanimity, we can be engaged in life and the world without being involved in a storyline about how things should be different. We open our hearts wide enough to include both suffering and joy. 

When I simply observe my thoughts and feelings without believing my judgments and opinions of that experience, my mind becomes less reactive. I see the thoughts wafting through the field of awareness like clouds across the sky. The clear blue sky is always there. The spacious mind is always there. Give this a try. Sit down, focus on your breath, a prayer, or a mantra. Stay steady and see what happens for you. Breath by breath. Don’t believe everything you think, especially if you think you can’t do this. You are training your mind to focus on the light behind the clouds.  

On the yoga mat, we frequently practice the same poses. Each time, we go deeper into understanding their qualities and nuances. And so it is with cultivating the quality of equanimity. With a caring yet non-reactive heart and mind, we all stand a better chance of responding to life’s circumstances in a loving, compassionate, joyful, and equanimous way. The light is within us. We each can choose where we want to focus in any given moment. I’m going to focus on the light because sometimes it’s harder to see. I wish the same for you.

May you be safe.
May you be happy. 
May you be healthy.
May you know ease of wellbeing. 

Coming Home to Ourselves

On our way home…
photo by Pascale Parinda

News about two effective Covid 19 vaccines has been a balm to my unsettled nerves, even as the number of cases skyrockets across most of the world. As we approach Thanksgiving, our health experts are urging us to make difficult decisions about how we celebrate, even advising us to just stay home and share a meal with only our immediate family or “friend bubble.” Although my husband and I long to be with my small family in Greensboro, we have decided to remain in Weaverville. The risks are too great. We consider this a short-term sacrifice for long-term health and future gatherings. What’s your plan? How do you feel right now about the upcoming holidays? And where exactly is home? 

I “borrowed” the title of this essay from the title of Chapter 5 in Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World, a recent book by author Sharon Salzberg, a central figure in the field of meditation, and a world-renowned teacher. She writes that “deep in our hearts we all long for a feeling of being at home.” How does “home” feel in your body? When I feel at home, my body relaxes. I feel more comfortable in my skin.

I’m also reading The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, published in 2016. The author, Douglas Abrams, interviewed His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. These wise men suggest we find that home place through practices of prayer, meditation, gratitude, and compassion that cultivate joy. They recommend that we think of others, whether we are joyful or not. For example, when we feel lonely we can consider others who feel lonely. Just like us, they know sadness and despair. We are not alone. In those moments, we can send out a prayer or aspiration that all may be lifted up. If we are at the pharmacy (masked up, of course) consider that others there might be scared. Send out feelings of safety through your smiling eyes. I’ve spoken to several friends in the last 24 hours. Each one has mentioned feeling depressed, anxious, unsettled, angry, uncertain, scared, and scattered. These same people have reported feeling contented, settled, grateful, happy, loved and balanced. These same feelings course through my body at different times. I can’t choose only one. 

To everything there is a season…
Photo by Pascale Parinda

We are human. These are natural emotions that run through us. Which ones do you want to cultivate? I find that if I stop long enough to notice the physical sensations without adding a storyline, the energy will pass through me in a short time. Getting on the yoga mat for even a short while allows me to release the tension and reset my nervous system. A short brisk walk outside frees my constricted mind when I consider the expansiveness of the sky. I send this expanded awareness out to the universe. I don’t know if you all feel it but I feel better. What are you reading, listening to, or watching? How do you want to feel? Pay attention. Go to that physical feeling of happiness, compassion, gratitude, or love. How does it physically feel? Could this be home? 

Here’s my loving advice: when you are unhappy, consider that others feel the same way. Send out aspirations for them (and you) to feel uplifted. Feel that upliftedness in your body/mind.

When you are happy, feel that. Send out aspirations for others to feel that way. Some people are sending those aspirations out to you right now. Consider that. 

If nothing else, this pandemic reminds me of our interconnectedness and interdependence. We are living on this round planet together. What helps one helps all. 

I do not know what this holiday will bring. Will I dance on the porch, take a hike, or read a book? Will my husband play golf or tinker on a boat? Will we sit down to a traditional Thanksgiving dinner? I don’t know and I find a certain amount of freedom in that. I know that I will be at home wherever I find myself. 

I suspect that there will be laughter and loneliness as well as compassion and heartbreak. May you ride the waves of emotion with your heart open to include all that life brings you.