Centering Body & Mind—Yoga & the Four Sublime States (An offering of Southern Dharma Retreat Center)
One of the many lessons of the pandemic is how interconnected and interdependent we are.
The practice of yoga combined with an exploration of the Four Immeasurables can show us how to intentionally connect to ourselves and to others in ways that can reduce suffering and nurture happiness. In this at-home retreat with Cindy, we’ll explore how asana, along with the cultivation of friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity can quiet the mind, decrease discontent, and develop clarity and freedom, the benefits of which we can share with others.
Each day will include periods of silent and guided meditation, mindfulness exercises, and the practice of Hatha yoga postures and breath awareness. Depending on your situation, you can participate in all the sessions (much as you would at a residential retreat) or you can adjust the schedule to work with your “life” activities and responsibilities. For everyone, the intention we set will be to practice self-awareness during our time together and our time away from the group.
In the United States, we are five months into the Stay Home, Stay Safe aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic. At my house, we call it “The Covid”—as if it has an actual identity as an unwanted guest who won’t leave. We all want to talk about The Covid; about how our daily lives have changed, how difficult travel has become, and how worried we are about our family members and ourselves. We are swimming in anxiety, restlessness, and worry. How exhausting!
What can we practice to transform or at least limit these fraught conversations and heavy feelings? Surely there are more life-affirming alternatives to Netflix and on-going cocktail hours with friends on Zoom. (Is there any activity that doesn’t involve a screen right now?)
During these challenging times, I find it especially helpful to focus on the Four Immeasurables, also known as the Four Limitless Qualities or Heavenly Abodes. I’ve mentioned them before because they are always within us, as the blue sky is always with us, although it may be covered up by clouds. As a reminder, these qualities are loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
Does focusing on these make the pandemic go away? No. However, when we uncover and cultivate these qualities, we can experience life as more peaceful and spacious.
Take a moment:
How does your body feel when you feel angry? Really, how does it feel? Light and free? Tense and tight?
How does your body feel when you feel loved? Light and free? Tense and tight?
How does your body feel when you feel joyful or playful?
How does your body feel when you drop the storyline of who wears a mask and who doesn’t?
How do you want to feel at any given moment?
If you felt more at ease when focusing on the physical sensations of love, joy, and acceptance, perhaps others would, too. The aspiration practice of metta or loving-kindness prompts us to think beyond our personal difficulties and recognize that all of us are in this situation together. If each one of us loosened our grip on what we think is right, and instead wished for all of us to be more at ease, how would that feel? Maybe we would smile under our masks and wish that all beings be safe and happy, mask or not. Maybe we would send off a prayer that all could be healthy and well.
Let’s give it a try.
Let me be clear: I believe in science. Follow all the rules about wearing a mask where it’s expected and mandated. Wash your hands. Oh, and wear a mask. It’s possible to smile with your eyes.
I am stunned, numbed, outraged, and incredibly sad about the murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis police. His death, viewed by millions of people, led to largely peaceful mass protests in 50 cities in the U.S. and in dozens of countries around the world; thousands and thousands of people—black, brown, and white—gathered for nearly two weeks to express their anger and grief at this latest “lynching” of a black man.
As a privileged white female, the first thing I want to say is “I’m sorry” as meant by the Spanish phrase, “Lo siento.” I feel it. I am filled with sorrow for the pain that my race has inflicted on people of color. When I sit still on the meditation cushion and tune into all the levels of my feelings, sorrow is at the core. I have to acknowledge that first.
As I sit on the cushion, emotions and physical discomfort come and go. Over the years, I’ve sat through sadness, joy, confusion, and anger. At times, I’ve wanted to run screaming from the cushion because of the heart-rending experience of being human. Still I sit. I’ve learned that as those thoughts and feelings subside, clarity arises. From there, should I choose to act, the actions can emerge from clarity and compassion.
How do I take this clarity and compassion into the world when sometimes it feels so fleeting? How can I address what is going on now to help make real progress on racial justice and police reform? What can I do? What can you do to make the world a kinder and more accepting place for all? Each one of us has to decide for ourselves. When I look within, here are some options I’ve found. Perhaps they will resonate with you.
Notice and stay grounded. With kindness, acknowledge the violence within yourself and toward others. Be honest. Notice how you are in the world. How does racism, in particular, arise in you?
Look deeply at that. Do you live up to your own expectations? If you’ve fallen short, can you accept that and do better next time? Practice kindness and compassion. Start small.
Act in alignment with your highest ideals. Take responsibility. Apologize to yourself and others when you don’t. We are human. Sometimes our old conditioning and beliefs override our kind heart.
Do what you can to work for social justice, civil rights, and equality for all. Educate yourself about the issues that led to the Black Lives Matter movement and to ideas about changing the role of the police. Be deeply curious about the world of which you’re a part. As a citizen of the world, speak up! If you’re in the company of people who make racist or other prejudiced comments, gently but firmly call them out. Tell them how you feel and why. If you have the means, donate money (small amounts from many of us add up) to support to organizations that work towards a more just society. Join in peaceful protests, if you can do that safely (in a mask, using social distancing). If prayer helps you, go ahead and pray. Exercise your privilege in this democracy by voting. Help others exercise their right to vote.
This is a time to say what we mean and mean what we say. Start now to find ways to repair the world.
I planned to be in residence at Southern Dharma again this year to settle into the meditation hall for yoga and meditation, share silence and delicious, nutritious meals, and enjoy the serene beauty of western North Carolina mountains. I never imagined that a virus would sweep the world, affect so many families and businesses, and require us to creatively alter this plan.
Fortunately, we’re in the world of magic technology that allows us to be together in a different, yet intimate, way. Currently, I teach Zoom yoga classes from my home studio, during which I get to see inside people’s homes, meet their pets and children, and see what kind of practice space they have set up. I’d be honored to be invited into your home, if you choose to participate in this retreat. Likewise, I look forward to welcoming you into my home. There’s a special tenderness of being together in this way at a time when we’re asked to isolate ourselves from others.
The home of the four immeasurables, the limitless ones, is a place of both release and outreach: when we observe ourselves being frightened and reaching for more chocolate, can we notice that behavior with compassion toward ourselves, without judgment? And if we eat the chocolate, well, okay! There’s a pandemic going on…let’s eat chocolate! If we interact with someone who isn’t wearing a mask in the grocery store, can we tap into equanimity for that person who might be afraid in his or her own way?
Let’s be honest. We are uncomfortable with uncertainty. We don’t like not knowing.
Asana practice is a way to release into not knowing. During this time of emotional ups and downs, we have the opportunity to experience yoga as way to support our bodies and minds. We have the opportunity, on-line and at home, to stay embodied, soften our shoulders, and recognize our inter-dependency.
Southern Dharma and I are working together to create this at-home retreat as a way to support and comfort you, as well as to hone your tools of self-awareness.
No matter your personal situation, I’m confident you can find ways to participate in this retreat. It’s an experiment, like life. Just show up and see what happens. There’s no “wrong way” to do this!
I sit and squint at the blue bird on the budding branch. I can see that the bird is blue. I can’t tell whether it’s an Eastern Bluebird, a Blue Bunting, or a Blue Jay. I realize in that moment that I just can’t see well. Then I remember: months ago I was diagnosed with vitreomacular traction, an eye condition that causes distorted vision.
The reason I even had a clue that there are different kinds of birds that are blue is that my friend, Jim, surprised me last week with a copy of What It’s Like to Be a Bird, by David Allen Sibley. As soon as I received the book, I delved right in. What else am I to do while Staying Home? How many Zoom classes can one take?
Before the bird flew away, I found binoculars and discovered that he was an Eastern Bluebird. To see more clearly, I needed the right tool—in this case, the proper kind of glasses.
During this challenging crisis, I find I’m spending more time than usual looking inward. What am I not seeing? What tools can I use to help me see more clearly? Are there aspects of personality that aren’t readily clear? Well, yes. I’ve noticed that I’m greedy. Usually, I stay busy enough not to notice. Busy-ness distracts me. Now, greed arises within me for a sit-down meal at a restaurant, or a leisurely afternoon at Malaprops. I even ache for an unmasked trip to the post office. That’s pitiful. At least I keep my sense of humor.
The pandemic has deprived us of many of the activities of daily life that distract us, as well as those that entertain and enrich us. There’s so much I miss! Hugging my grandnephew is high on the list of things I crave… even more than a sit-down meal at Thai Kitchen.
However, when I use the “right” tools, I have the opportunity, if I so choose, to direct my focus. Then I experience more stable ground beneath my feet, steadiness to my breathing, a lift of my spirits, and connection to myself and others. My tools include a Koan meditation session, a long walk with Jack, FaceTime with a friend, a Zoom yoga class, and sometimes a prayer. What are the tools available to you to help you see more clearly—to help you find clarity? I recognize that I may not “like” what I see. Today, I noticed the dirty grout in the shower. I recognized the gritty greed in my mind. I scoured the grout. I watched the greed. I suspect both will return. I’ll be watching.
Until the “all clear,” I’m working to accept the fact that the hug I’m sending you is “virtual,” but nonetheless, deeply felt. I’m also sending you the strong suggestion that you find ways to “see” more clearly—whether it’s a bluebird on a branch, or a glimpse of your true, authentic, and loving nature.
A number of you are already enjoying taking private and semi-private classes with me via Zoom. I will continue to offer this way of practicing through May. If you would like to schedule Zoom time with me, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to set this up.
Right now I am not teaching in-person group classes or Zoom group classes. However, I am set up to offer private and semi-private classes via Zoom. If you would like to schedule this way of staying connected with yoga and me at this time, please send me an email to set this up.
A part of me has been feeling untethered lately. What day is this? What’s on my to-do list? What do I do if I don’t have a to-do list? On some days, I feel joyful and free. On other days, I feel trapped. I’ve observed that frequently the focus of my attention determines my mood and the quality of my life.
We exist in uncharted territory right now. Nobody knows what will happen in two days or two months. The truth is that we never ever know the future. Never have. Never will. So let’s focus on now since our actions and attitudes today affect the future.
Did you ever go on a scavenger hunt where you have a list of items to find? Perhaps you wandered into the woods in search of Jack-in-the-pulpit, Solomon’s seal, or wild ginseng. If you looked hard and long enough, you could usually find some of these. However, little hunting was required for dandelions so they were seldom on the list.
Back to the present moment where we’re urged, for the well being of our fellow humans, to stay home and social distance. It’s weird, isn’t it? And, I find, quite challenging to practice. Grief lays heavy on the shoulders. Anxiety appears to be free floating in the atmosphere—kind of like dandelions popping up in the yard. Simultaneously, kindness hovers nearby as neighbors assist each other in obtaining food from the store. Many teachers offer online classes on a “pay if you can” basis. Folks with sewing skills are giving away homemade masks. Goodness abounds in these times. Gratitude flourishes right beside this open-heartedness when we take a breath and recognize the generosity of others. Where is your focus?
Yes, there is much uncertainty facing the world right now. Many brilliant minds are looking for short and long-term medical and economic prescriptions to treat and recover from this pandemic. What we can say for certain is that the worldwide spread of the virus shows how interconnected we all are—and that indisputable fact suggests a Rx that is available right now: yes, love, sweet love…and compassion…to others and to ourselves. I believe to my core that how we interact with others and with ourselves during this time is affecting our fellow humans on multiple levels. For instance, I’ve noticed much kindness and generosity as folks reach out to neighbors to offer to pick up and deliver food. That feels good! A newfound courtesy is springing up in stores as we make room, physically and emotionally, for the presence of others in our shared space. Many people are out walking in parks with kids and dogs and are sending air-hugs through the ethers from the recommended 6 feet of separation. Lovely to witness!
Others are sequestered in their homes, spending lots of time on FaceTime to visit with family. The use of Zoom is on the rise as many of us improve our Spanish, practice yoga, or learn to make bread with strangers, who may become new friends. We are connected by being alive on this planet we call home and by helping one another through this extremely difficult time.
As a yoga practitioner, I watch the play of the mind and body. In one moment, I feel secure in my good health. Next, I know that I’m not immune. I notice nervous energy. I walk quickly and sit down to meditate. I’m concerned about those who live in health care facilities and the medical teams who tend to them. Simultaneously, I trust that each of us is doing the best we can to care for ourselves and each other. I have no idea of what will happen anywhere or anytime. Ever. All we have is now and now affects the future. Following the best advice for everyone now, I am not offering any group classes March 23 through April 1.
What currently captures my mental attention is the spectrum and fluidity of human desire—for stability, movement, contact, even isolation. What do you desire and what do you do when you don’t have access to your desired routines or daily habits? Do you frequently go to yoga classes or to the movies? Now that those outlets are not available, do you get cranky, whine, and bemoan your fate? Or do you unearth your sewing machine and finally say yes to that dress? Can you observe what’s happening inside of you, and without judgment, notice how those feelings translate into behavior? Can you sit still and let the energies pass through you without doing your habitual behavior? You don’t know until you try.
Around the world, yoga teachers are offering on-line classes. I encourage you to jump in on some of those. I’ll be posting yoga poses and sequences from archived One Center Yoga newsletters until I get to that place of technology know-how. Here’s a Pose of the Month featuring Ustrasana. Supportive chest-opening poses are beneficial to boost the immune system, lift our spirits, and expand our chest cavity to enable easier breathing.
I miss seeing your smiling faces and uplifted chests. I want to give each one of you a big, tight hug. For now, I’m going to stay present, protected (not fearful), and calm as I wade into the unknown future. Please know that in this very moment, which is the only moment I can be present for, I’m sending a huge air-hug to each of you and to the planet. I trust that all will be well.
If you have a few moments to spare, I urge you to watch this gorgeous YouTube video from 2016 (What the World Needs Now) when the 6-feet of separation rule did not apply. Yes, love, sweet love, is what the world needs now.
I’ve been ping ponging in my head about teaching classes this week or not teaching them. I’m going to err on the side of caution and suspend group classes at my home studio and at Wellspring Wellness for this week, March 16-20. I will let you know soon if I will hold classes the week after that.
I will continue to teach private and semi-private lessons. If you’re interested in scheduling one of those, contact me. I hope to make some meditation recordings this week. I’m not going to promise…
As a pharmacist, I recognize the danger of viral and bacterial infections. When epidemiologists, the CDC, and WHO advise people to be cautious, I comply. I suspect you’ve heard the very basic guidelines:
Wash hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and hot water.
Maintain social distance of 3 feet from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
If you’re older than 65, stay home.
The “social distancing” part is the hard one for me; I hug people all the time. I feel like human contact is something we need more of, not less. Still, I’m going to follow the recommended precautions and give hugs with my eyes, my words, my energy, my actions. And I’ve been washing my hands frequently since I was a child. My parents were right about that!
I am concerned that people are experiencing so much panic and anxiety. Please try to stay calm. Panic never helps. Really, never! If you want factual information, visit the CDC website the WHO (World Health Organization).
So, what to do? Take a breath. Walk outside and look up. Eat well. Reach out to friends. Write a letter. Make phone calls. Practice the Immune Sequence in this PDF (which you can download and print if you like). If you aren’t familiar with the poses, contact an Iyengar teacher. I’m here! Other studios are posting on-line classes.
I will write more in the next few days. I wanted to inform you now of the schedule changes for this week.