Body is Home

Last week a younger friend, 30something, commented in an email that she needed to work on loving her body. In the note she spoke critically of certain body parts, as she has before in conversations. She didn’t like the way this and that looked.

I emailed back a rant. Of the most supportive and loving kind. I wrote:

Every time I hear you critique your body I just want to SHAKE you, I have to say! My gosh, you are stunning! And healthy! In the bloom of life! Your body works great! Fricking enjoy your fabulous body!

OK, cranky bat’s rant over, lol. Just, I really hate the way this culture trains women to despise our bodies when we are so so lovely in all our gorgeous permutations.

And having come through years of being absolutely decrepit, I feel like the important thing—the only thing—is whether or not we feel good in our bodies. If they work for us, if they’re generally free of pain, then hey. Celebrate.

That about sums up my response to women who diss their bodies. Except: After I sent this, I started to notice the slightest bit of hypocrisy.

Yes, I do feel pretty good in my body, and I do appreciate it working. I’ll wear tights to yoga class and not feel self-conscious. I’ll even wear shorts when I haven’t gotten around to shaving my white-and-hairy legs, with their various scars and divots and bruises. (I don’t care about all that. My legs walk great, and pump my bike pedals quite effectively.)

But do I really love this 50-year-old body as unconditionally as I would hope all women would love their bodies? Isn’t my love contingent upon feeling half decent, remaining trim, and staying active?

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Crater Lake and me. With slight “bat wings” starting to show. (This was a few years ago.)

Back when I was living with chronic illness (the “decrepit” period mentioned mid-rant), I did not love my body much at all. Would I now, if some unexpected health challenge befell me?

Furthermore, why do I sigh at the way my blemish-prone skin is losing its suppleness? Why do I look askance at my newly floppety triceps?

I remember Jan Phillips. last year on a tear at the International Women’s Writing Guild annual conference, grabbing the flesh under her arm and saying, “Don’t waste another minute fussing about THIS.” She wanted us all to focus on getting our creative gifts out there, because “the world needs you.”

I think of Jan whenever I feel a tinge of dislike for my own baby “bat wings.” Jan says don’t worry about it!

Then again, part of loving my body does involve focusing on it—not in a fussy/critical way, but spending time doing what it wants to do. Stretching, walking, dancing, touching, resting, laughing, playing, enjoying good food…

All things that make me feel great. And theoretically make me look great too. Though I stop short of tricep curls and whatnot. So far.

Last night Gaynell ended her yoga class with an invitation, as she often does, to gratitude: “Pause and thank the miracle that is your body. It’s the best and only home that your mind and spirit have.”

That’s the space I want to live in. No matter what, this body is my home.

Feel the Hum

More and more I am drawn to sound and music as healing forces.

It might be because I am drawing inward to “hear” the vibration in my body more and more often. There’s a hum, if I get quiet enough to notice. So I experience the healing effect of an instrument or voice as a vibrational quality that can be incredibly powerful.

Rachel Bagby, in an audio conversation with TreeSisters, suggests that we stand next to a moving body of water and hum. It’s a way of reconnecting, and shifting out of our customary ways of seeing/being/speaking. We become part of the world instead of continuing to feel separate.

She says that as you join with the companionable sound of the water, your voice won’t be alone. And by humming, you don’t enter the arena of performance anxiety that so many of us associate with the word “singing.”

I have been playing with this all week, as I cross bridges over “the run” that intersects the golf course where my dog and I walk (early early, pre-golfer!).

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This photo was taken in March, but you get the idea.

It feels good to hum and tone and tralala with water sliding by below me. In the privacy of the morning, this practice lifts me.

So does a transportive concert of Tibetan and crystal singing bowls, cello, tabla, throat singing, and flutes. (This happened Sunday, courtesy of the Irvington Summer Music series, which brought the mesmerizing Ron Esposito and his ensemble here from Cincinnati.)

So does moving through yoga postures with the support of a didgeridoo, drums, flute, and mbira (thumb piano). (This happens on the fourth Thursday of every month at my beloved yoga studio, when Adam Riviere from Playground Productions joins us with his instruments.)

If I allow these experiences to fill me, they each have the power to rearrange me. I come away different, reverberating in oneness. Sometimes a headache will disappear, or I will simply feel more shimmery and alive.

Do you have any sound or music practices that change you for the better? Tell us about it in the comments!

P.S. If you’d like to experience the healing power of sound this weekend, and you’re local to Central Indiana, come check out the Blooming Life Wellness Event happening 11-3 Saturday, May 27, at Trader’s Point Creamery. Adam will be among the musicians offering live music with yoga, and there is even a kirtan (call and response musical experience.) The event is free, family-friendly, and happens rain or shine—I will be there!

Microscopic Truth

My yoga teacher sometimes says “Feel the hum in your body,” when we are near the close of class.

Do you, ever? Feel that hum? Your energy body. It’s quietly there with you.

Someone told me recently that I have a sort of “presence” that seems to come from being fully in my body. I was honored, and told her that for many years I was NOT in my body. I wouldn’t even have known what that meant.

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Disembodied

These days I don’t always stay there 100 percent of the time, but I know what it is to feel into my body, to honor its communications. After years of dealing with chronic pain and fatigue, drifting along untethered, I have come home. It’s been a long road, but I now feel like I can trust my body.

Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk says, in this podcast:

“…if people are in a constant state of heartbreak and gut-wrench, they do everything to shut down those feelings to their body… And so a very large number of traumatized people…have very cut off relationships to their bodies. They may not feel what’s happening in their bodies… We needed to help people for them to feel safe feeling the sensations in their bodies, to start having a relationship with the life of their organism, as I like to call it.”

As I deepen that relationship, I’ve found myself tuning in closer and finer than ever. Exploring the microscopic truth expressed by my body. I’m noticing, sometimes in the wee hours when I wake up from an intense dream, what it feels like to resist whatever’s coming up. I don’t want to feel the old ball of dread descend on me, or the worry, or the anger, or the grief, and I can feel myself wanting to reject it. Here’s a tightening of my scalp, there’s a clench in my neck, a rigidity about the shoulders.

I’m not resisting even the resistance, but allowing it all in. Instead of shutting down with “No, no, no,” I’m reaching for the “Yes.”

The other night I actually mentally said, “Come in, come in, welcome welcome,” as I acknowledged each layer of sensation and emotion. And just in the acknowledgement, they seemed to melt away.

After all, as my mindfulness teacher used to tell me, “It is already here.” And as the poet Rumi says, “This being human is a guest house.”

I’ve lived long enough to laugh at my habitual patterns now and then. Oh yeah, that ball of dread again, there it is! Oh those worry states, stealing my sleep again! There’s that fear of something that may or may not ever happen… There’s despair, I can hold that one extra gently. There’s that contraction that could easily lead to a headache if I don’t breathe into it now.

Finding compassion for all of it—saying yes to all of it—broadens my capacity for kindness to others and to life itself. And as van der Kolk would say, I own myself fully, which makes me more resilient.

On Peace Day

This was my favorite moment of the Peace Day gathering last week at Rivoli Park Labyrinth: when young Elijah piped up with an innocent question. He’s 9, and his mother Alicia Oskay was leading us in some gentle postures and breathing. When she mentioned how yoga brings more peacefulness, in keeping with International Day of Peace, Elijah stage whispered, “Is that a thing?”

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Alicia and her son Elijah modeling hip stretches.

Why yes, young sir. Your mother did not make it up. This Peace Day business is for real. According to the website, “Peace Day provides a globally shared date for all humanity to commit to Peace above all differences and to contribute to building a Culture of Peace.”

International Day of Peace is observed around the world each year on September 21st, ever since it was established in 1981 by a unanimous United Nations resolution. In recent years, people observing the day have begun using the hashtag #peaceday to share stories of random acts of kindness and inspirational quotes on social media.

Locally, about 25 people came together at Rivoli Park Labyrinth to mark the day. This pocket park in a vacant lot, founded by Lisa Boyles, has hosted many other meaningful gatherings.

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View of the labyrinth from my forward bend.

After yoga, Lisa invited all of us to make #PeaceDay signs for our walk through the Rivoli Park neighborhood with local law enforcement. (For everyone making a sign, she banked a half hour on TimeBank Indy, our local hours-bartering exchange network.)

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Elijah shows the poster he and his mother created.

Both the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff’s Department were represented in our little march. We drew honks and waves and fist pumps from passing drivers, and one woman on foot offered several God-bless-yous.

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Getting ready to walk the neighborhood.

We returned to the pocket park to share food and conversation, and walk the labyrinth at our leisure. For more details on the day, find an IndyStar photo essay here.

Lisa has coordinated the labyrinth’s fans into various neighborhood projects over the years. Coming up this week is Indy Do Day—an annual three-day citywide service blitz, set for Sept. 29, 30, and Oct. 1. The Rivoli Park Labyrinth was installed on Indy Do Day on October 10, 2013.

“I would like the tradition of doing service and giving back to continue,” she says, emphasizing that everyone is encouraged to find an Indy Do Day opportunity to spread some good in the community. She herself plans to offer her time packing snack bags for children in a low-income neighborhood alongside a group called #gRoE , Inc.

Projects like these can be found by searching the website of Indy Do Day.

What’s Already Here

This week in yoga class we opened our arms wide and bowed in surrender.

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How I feel in yoga class at Irvington Wellness Center. Photo by Mitchell Joyce, via flickr Commons

Our teacher, Gaynell Collier-Magar, invited us to open in gratitude for the extraordinary privilege of experiencing what’s already here. We stood as trees with arms outstretched and my fingertips brushed the hand of Joyce at my left. Then later, lying back in a spinal twist, my fingers contacted Scott’s on my right. Each student deep in our space but connecting with the other.

The goodwill and warmth created in that space fed me, like it does every week.

And not just because they sang Happy Birthday to me before class. (“It’s not just a yoga class, it’s a community,” Gaynell said, and she’s right.)

She led us in half sun salutations, invoking joy as we raised our arms high, surrender as we opened our arms and bowed, equanimity as we rose halfway with hands on shins, surrender again as we folded to the floor, joy again as we rose to circle-sweep our arms high, and finally connection with the sacred as we rested our hands in prayer position at our hearts.

Yeah, it’s that kind of class. The kind where you know you’re just really lucky to be able to sit and breathe in awareness—even though the same breath walks in with you, and you could easily(?) contact it any old time.

In this studio I often tremble in release while holding postures, and even if I don’t understand it on a conscious level, I know that things are moving through me. Sometimes I cry. I cried this time while crimped into a half pigeon posture, leg folded under my torso, forehead on the floor, listening to Donna De Lory sing of being a sanctuary.

The tears came again in a forward bend while the song Mercy poured over us.

“One by one, could we turn it around,” etc. It slayed me. The longing, the heartfelt wish for healing of the world. For everyone to feel joy, surrender, equanimity, surrender, joy, connection.

What more is there than that?

Resilient Communities and People: How Yoga Can Help

Guest post by Gaynell Collier-Magar

Hi everyone! I am so honored to be a guest blogger on Shawndra’s amazing website. Shawndra is one of my Irvington Wellness Center yoga students. She has a beautiful, thoughtful practice, both on and off of the mat. She personifies how yoga can help with resiliency in life.

Yoga is a 5000-year-old tradition of practices (the Eight Limbs) to reduce suffering and still the mind. It is not a religion. However, the practices have been incorporated by many religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, and contemplative Christianity to name a few.

The physical practice or “asana” (“seat”) is meant to create resiliency in the body and mind to enable sitting in meditation for long periods of time. Unfortunately, in the West, the physical practice is often perceived as the path to buns of steel, pretzel poses, and very thin 20-something bodies.

The first lines of the Yoga Sutras state: “Now, the teachings of yoga. Yoga is to still the patternings of consciousness”. The Sutras explain how our habitual ways of thinking create suffering and how we can remedy this.

When we are reimagining a future for our communities, yoga could be a useful tool.

Photo by Jenny Spadafora

Photo by Jenny Spadafora, via Flickr Commons

So how does this happen? In the physical practice, it begins with being in the present moment—in the body and the breath. To get a feel for what I mean, try this:

Notice how you are sitting now. Are you slumping? Good…notice how you feel heavy in your body. Now, sit up straight, feel your bottom sitting in your chair, feel your feet on the floor, and lift your chest. Do you feel any lighter in your body? Slump again and notice. Sit up again and notice. Now close your eyes, put your hands on the tops of your thighs and take three deep, slow breaths. Focus on the exhale.

What was your mind doing? Chances are it wasn’t making a to-do list, obsessing about the person at work who drives you crazy, or yearning after a piece of chocolate. You begin to get a glimpse of the mind becoming more still—an experience that increases in depth and length with further practice.

The practice is to notice what is happening in the present moment, practice non-reaction, and return to the present moment. Neuroscience is showing that these practices literally re-wire the brain.

Two of the liabilities of community work are burnout and lack of fresh ideas. Our ego-driven “monkey mind” robs us of tremendous energy and creativity. As we engage in practices that still the mind, we create a mindspace in which to think outside the box—and the energy to act accordingly.

Photo by TZA, via Flickr Commons

Photo by TZA, via Flickr Commons

We also create a mind that is equanimous and unattached, yet deeply caring. We create a mind that is focused and in the present moment. We create a mind that is resilient.

It is not a leap of consciousness nor faith to realize how resilient minds can create resilient communities. The Buddha said, “All that we are is a result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.”

Gaynell has been a yoga practitioner for over 14 years. She was certified as a Vinyasa yoga instructor in 2009 by Rolf Gates and is a registered yoga teacher with Yoga Alliance. She is certified to teach adaptive yoga to people with physical disabilities, having studied with Matthew Sanford of Mind Body Solutions. She has taught Vinyasa, adaptive, and 12-step recovery yoga classes in Indianapolis and Cozumel, Mexico in Spanish and English. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work and owns her own landscaping business, Growing Connection.

Join Gaynell and other terrific instructors at Shine Out Yoga Celebration, July 11-12 in Indianapolis, benefiting Mighty Lotus.

Yoga: Leading with the Heart

I’ve practiced yoga for many years, starting in my 20s. My practice fell off in my 30s, around the time my health went wonky. For a long stretch, whenever I attended a class or practiced at home, the result was exhaustion and pain.

But in the last several years I’ve come back to yoga as I’ve rebuilt my health. Now I see my weekly Irvington Wellness Center class with Gaynell Collier-Magar as one of the pillars of my spiritual and physical self-care regimen.

Photo by Lyn Talley, via flickr Commons

Not a picture from our class. Photo by Lyn Talley, via flickr Commons

In Gaynell’s classes, you won’t find that punctilious solemnity that infects some yoga classes. She teaches with a lightness and authenticity that nourishes all comers. And she brings her whole self to teaching. I love that she doesn’t take herself too seriously. Nor does she shy away from the spiritual underpinnings of yogic practice.

Week after week, she nudges us to experience the support of unseen energies around us, to feel into our physical bodies and the air around them.

As we move into a standing posture, Gaynell might say something like, “Lead with your heart; allow your heart to move toward the wall…and now [a smile in her voice], loosening the grip with which you normally hold your life, raise your arms overhead.” Which makes us laugh in self-recognition while carefully forming our bodies into the shape she models.

Photo by Ariane, via flickr Commons

Not a picture of our class or anyone I know. Photo by Ariane, via flickr Commons.

Sometimes it takes stillness to open us to the love that’s all around us. It happened in last week’s class when I found myself holding a posture called the Half Pigeon. This pose has us fold the torso over a bent knee while stretched out face-down on the mat.

Gaynell queues up her play lists with care, and for this extended hold of Half Pigeon, she played a song celebrating the Divine Mother. The vocalist sang her tribute with piercing simplicity. With my forehead pressed to the mat, I felt tears well up from deep inside.

In previous years I might have cried in yoga classes out of grief, out of frustration, out of anger at my body (or at the instructor). Sometimes I cried from plain old weariness and physical pain.

But my heart is full now, and my body and spirit feel replete. My tears are not expressions of hurt. I weep because I feel steeped in love and gratitude.

Photo by Nicolas L., via flickr Commons

Photo by Nicolas L., via flickr Commons

Have you felt that—that opening in your heart center like a flower’s petals unfurling? I hope you have. I wish it for everyone.

I used to believe (or part of me shouted loudly enough to make me think I should believe) that an open heart was less essential than, say, large dramatic projects. It was the outer stuff that would change the world, not the inner.

Now I tend to think that this infusion of love is foundational to any external work, and that any worldchanging shift must manifest on both an internal and an external level.

Gaynell’s own writing will take a turn on this blog in coming weeks. Stay tuned to learn her perspective on how yoga supports resilient communities.