Monday, April 7, 2014

Meditation Resources

Resources abound for those hoping to learn more about meditation. My first recommendation is to find a meditation group or in-the-flesh course with an experienced instructor. Regular practice in the same room with others, especially when led by someone who can guide and inspire, offers an energy and structure that can help create a habit of meditation that you can carry with you anywhere.

That's not always possible, and even those in established meditation groups may be interested in exploring the practice in other ways. Fortunately, many meditation masters have shared their teachings through books, audios and online courses.

My go-to teacher for beginning meditation practices is Sylvia Boorstein, a meditation teacher in northern California. She's written a number of books that explain both Buddhism and meditation in accessible, friendly terms. My favorite is It's Easier Than You Think.

I also highly recommend the teachings of Pema Chodron, a meditation teacher in the Shambhala tradition. My copies of Start Where You Are and The Wisdom of No Escape have been my companions for years. I return to them often. This wonderful teacher also released many of her meditation retreats in CD and audio-download format. They are wonderful immersions into the practice of formal meditation.

Jon Kabat-Zinn offers meditation resources that are grounded in Buddhist thought but presented in a secular format. He is the founder of an approach called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. I especially recommend his book Wherever You Go, There You Are, and his Guided Mindfulness Meditation CD sets.

Jack Kornfield has a number of beautiful books including A Path With Heart and The Wise Heart. His CD set Guided Meditation: Six Essential Practices To Cultivate Love, Awareness and Wisdom is one of my favorites.

Gil Fronsdal also teaches in norther California, and offers his dharma talks and online meditation courses through his website audiodharma.org. I recommend his introduction to meditation courses - which can be downloaded from his site - to those who would like to begin but can't find a local meditation instructor.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a wise and compassionate Vietnamese meditation instructor who has followers all around the world. He has many inspiring books, including You Are Here, Peace is In Every Step and The Miracle of Mindfulness. He also offers many resources for those interested in teaching mindfulness and meditation to children.

And the works of Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano, starting with Landscapes of Wonder, offer a poetic vision of the spiritual lessons we can glean through deeper communion with the natural world. His books are just beautiful.

I also highly recommend Dharmaseed.org, which offers a huge catalog of dharma talks by meditation masters from around the world. These talks - some of which include guided meditations - are available to download free. I listen to these almost every day (Many of the teachers I've listed above have talks on this site). And Sounds True also offers a treasure trove of audio instruction from a range of meditation masters from many traditions, and even online courses open to all.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Family Yoga: Session Ten

I had high hopes that we would end family yoga month with one rousing finale, with everyone participating happily, cheering each other on, and reveling in the glow of our month of family yoga.

Once again - and as usual - life had other plans.

It wouldn't be fair to say we hobbled to the end, exactly. We did have a drop-out and perhaps a yoga rebel or two, who opted for a more individualized interpretation of family yoga. We did run up against busy schedules and end-of-day exhaustion. We did waffle and waver toward the end.

But still, we did it. And the most unlikely participant of all turned out to be the most enthusiastic, which meant I got to spend some quality yoga time with my beloved father. (Who knew we would ever sit down at the kitchen table together and consider the ins and outs of child's pose?) I developed a very basic 10-pose yoga sequence for him that seems to offer a gentle, well-rounded tune up for the body, and that I'm eager to share with others. Yoga did slip a little more deeply into the folds of all of our lives.

The youngest are still hurtling themselves up against the walls, growing more confident in their handstands every day. They say they long for summer when they can practice in the grass without fear of falling into door frames or onto legos. They hum a lot, practicing that brahmari breath in mostly appropriate ways, and they occasionally ask to do some "really hard pretzel poses."

And the older have, I think, gained a newfound appreciation for mindful movement. It's amazing how little it takes - a stretch here and a twist there every day - to keep the body feeling fluid and free. We also learned how important it is to have the support of a community when trying something new and forming new habits. We learned how to fine tune the practice to the winds of each day.

Hopefully the echoes of family yoga will live on for all of us, in small and unexpected ways. My dear father, at least, is keeping with yoga on his own, emailing me each day with news of which dramatic, sunny view he surveyed while sailing through his yoga sequence. He also emails me for long-distance consultations.

And so I'm declaring our family yoga experiment a success. It wasn't at all what I envisioned when we set out on our journey together. It was noisier and bumpier, I suppose. It was filled with surprises, which we came to love only when we traded in resistance for acceptance. We had many sparkling moments. All in all, it was a beautiful ride.

Maybe that was the biggest epiphany for me last month. Reality rarely matches the perfection of possibility. It's messier and noisier and harder, and filled with unexpected twists and turns. The trick is to manage it with faith and grace and open arms. With persistence and resilience and a willingness to improvise. A playful spirit helps, as well as a patient and forgiving heart.

It's a beautiful, beautiful journey, this life. And it is so much more lovely when shared with those we hold most dear.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Family Yoga: Session Nine (Sort Of)

Oops. Life seems to have interfered with Family Yoga these last few days. Travel preparation, tax season, science experiments and a virus that's been slow-dancing through our family have kept us off our mats.

Yoga is still there, though, lingering in the background of our days. We're aware that we're missing, but often by the time we remember yoga we've run out of time, effort and willpower. We're just too tired or frazzled or busy trying to get dinner on the table before we're in our pjs.

(I recently heard the suggestion that anytime you hear yourself say, "I don't have time," you should substitute the words, "That's not a priority for me," and consider that this may be a more accurate explanation. Ouch.)

Here's the silver lining: While we may not have been gathering together on our mats these last few days, yoga does seem to have wiggled its way into the twists and turns of our day. Lego building is occasionally interrupted by handstand practice. Dinner conversation sometimes includes talk of spinal alignment (If you hear a shout of "BPA" then straighten up, because someone has just issued a Bad Posture Alert!) YouTube yoga videos are shared. Photos are taken and quick notes scribbled down in hopes of developing a simple sequence of postures that can be done any time, by almost anybody, almost anywhere.

We've also been playing around with a few new yoga toys. This wedge, which was designed to help improve spinal alignment while sitting (transforming your "sad dog" posture into a "happy dog"), has been passed about. I like it and am keeping one in my car. And this strap, designed to help open the chest and keep the shoulders happily positioned, has been put to many uses - some of them more yogic than others. (Maybe I'll tuck this one away for my yoga classes.)

We've also been having a lot of fun practicing bhramari (humming bee) breath, which is beautifully explained in this Yoga international article by Timothy McCall. It's simple, safe, and utterly delightful. It's gifts are myriad: shaking free clogged sinuses, calming anxiety, opening the heart, and best of all, cultivating joy.

Everyone in our household seems to love this breath, which is a little like chanting with your mouth closed. The vibrations seem to ricochet throughout the body and out into the cosmos beyond, unsticking the sticky bits within and creating a feeling of brightness and ease.

I'm hopeful that we can climb back on our mats together a few more times before the month ends and life takes us in different directions. And in the meantime, we'll all keep humming.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Family Yoga: Sessions Seven and Eight

Family Yoga continues, although it is less in the forefront of our days. I wouldn't say it has become an afterthought, exactly, but the newness or this family adventure has slipped into routine.

Our sessions also seem to have bifurcated lately, with adults and children requesting separate sessions. On the one hand, I feel disappointed, since the shared experience is lost. Almost-Family Yoga, or Sort-Of Family Yoga, doesn't quite have the same pull to me.

But the division into kid-yoga and grown-up yoga does make sense, and makes it easier for everyone. The adults haven't exactly been finding their inner peace amid the eyebag-snowball fights. The kids haven't been particularly wowed by my lectures on spinal alignment. Dividing things up makes it easier for everyone to find what they need, meaning everyone is a little more enthusiastic about what they're learning.

Adults continue to develop a simple, gentle yoga flow. We have one week left of this experiment, and I'm hopeful the adults will take with them into March a yoga flow they can do on their own. I'm doing my best to convince them that just 10 minutes of gentle stretching each day is enough to help their bodies feel stronger and their minds a little easier. It doesn't take much.

And the adults have whispered to me in conspirational tones that yoga works. Their bodies feel less achy and more flowy and alive. They seem to be on their way to becoming yoga enthusiasts.

For the kids, yoga has been all handstand all the time. They are demons possessed by the urge to turn themselves upside-down. I'm doing my best to ride this wave of enthusiasm while offering enough supervision to keep us out of the emergency room.

Watching their efforts has been a delight. Their determination has been fierce, and they head over to their spaces at the wall to practice several times a day. They have each managed to make it upside-down on their own but not every time, which is frustrating but only fuels their determination. They've been helping one another and making videos of each other flipping upside-down. They've even slowed down their videos to analyze their attempts and figure out what works best.

They've learned patience and persistence, putting into practice one of our favorite family mantras, "Never Give Up." They've practiced cooperation. And they've had a lot of fun exploring the limits and possibilities of their bodies.

What is it about turning oneself inside-out and upside-down that is so thrilling? What is it about climbing into one's own body and exploring the limits and possibilities that is so enlivening?

And for that matter, for the adults, what is it about rippling the spine on all fours that feels so good? How can just a few minutes of twisting and bending create such profound relief? How does yoga work such magic time and time again?

Occasionally I get close to making sense of it all, but mostly I remained awash in the mystery and the not-knowing of exactly how yoga works. What matters, I suppose, is that it does work. And that we welcome it wholeheartedly into our lives - sometimes together and sometimes a part - each and every day.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Family Yoga: Session Seven

By the time we remembered yoga, we were too late. A busy evening meant that we wouldn't all be in the house together until well after the kids' bedtime. No problem, I thought, we'll just let yoga slide today.

But the kids had other ideas and begged for a class anyway. "Let's do some real yoga," they said. "Not that old-people stuff."

This may have been a ploy to delay bedtime, and if it was, it worked. We pulled out mats in the playroom and stood in Tadasana. We jumped (and howled) our way through a few cacophonous sun salutations, complete with kid-friendly variations like Hissing Cobra, Jumping Frog, and the perennial little-boy favorite, Tinkling Dog (Dog Pose with one leg high in the air).

The boys stayed right with me, so I pressed on into a few big standing poses, some lunges, Camel Pose, Plank Pose, and finally "Chaturanga-anga-anga-dandasana." 

"I'm sweating," one boy said. The other took off his shirt in a Bikram-esque gesture of bravado. I stopped him when he started pulling off his pants. Not on my yoga mat, little boy!

I threw in a few backbends and simple arm balances (Bakasana and Bhujapidasana). The boys finally collapsed on their mats in exhaustion and surrender. "Wow, Mom, I can't believe you can still do that," one said. "That's pretty good for a little old lady." 

Ahem. 

The boys decided to tackle full arm balance again tonight, this this time with a little assistance. I threw all my tricks their way, in hopes of helping them figure out how to kick up onto their hands against the wall.

They were relentless in their determination, despite my promises that we would try again tomorrow. They were undeterred by my reminder that I had once been sent to the doctor by an ill-fated attempt at full arm balance. ("But your toe wasn't really broken after all," they retorted.)

They asked me whether I might know just one more trick that could help them up. I thought of my yoga student who has spent years mastering the fine art of almost hopping up into full arm balance, and of her commitment to never giving up. I pulled out one last idea, and both boys managed to linger upside-down for a few seconds before toppling over. Good enough for tonight, they decided, rolling up their mats in triumph.

And that's when the magic happened. One boy shouted, "Blizzard!" We turned toward the window to see snowflakes as big as silver dollars falling through the trees. Out of nowhere a fantastic snowstorm had descended upon us. The wind howled. The snow danced. We watched as the world outside grew blindingly white.

We turned out the lights and sat down onto the floor. We marveled at the strength of the wind and the willy-nilly pattern of the snowflakes streaking by.  We whispered about what we saw: minnows skittering about in the ocean, starbursts, tornados, fireworks on the fourth of July. Hurricanes, the wind made visible, shooting stars.

And then we ran out of words. We sat there together in the dark, the three of us, watching the drama, the somehow suddenly beautiful spectacle of one more wintry snowfall. The room grew silent and still, just the way it feels when you wake up in the middle of the night and are overcome by the enormity of the world and the beauty of you being able to rest at its heart.

"This is like meditation," my older son whispered. I smiled and squeezed his hand.

And so it was that our yoga class ended not in corpse pose, not even floating on a cloud, but this time meditating on a big, beautiful blizzard -  my children and I  together, holding hands, happy and amazed.