Opening Your Heart

We are designed for balance and wholeness on every level of awareness and being. Most of us understand, at least on a rudimentary level, the process of homeostasis. The physical body actively seeks its balance 24 hours a day. Years ago during a six-month stint in diagnosis, my doctor encouraged me to stay positive as test after test failed to reveal the cause of my deteriorating health. He told me that it was a miracle any of us are healthy on any given day because of the billions of elements that must be in balance for us to be healthy.

Several years after regaining my health, I returned to college and majored in psychology. While volunteering on a crisis phone service, I spoke with one of my professors about memories of abuse emerging decades after the events. He explained that the psyche (in yoga, the mental & emotional bodies) also seeks balance and wholeness. As a person matures, the walls of dissociation begin to crack and crumble and memories emerge as the mind and emotions demand healing.

When threatened, we respond on all levels, drawing in toward the core to protect ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally. What many of us have not understood is how to release out of these natural and deep self-protective states. In my training with Integrative Yoga TherapyI was taught to begin the process by opening up the body in order to open the mind and emotions to release stored energy and move into balance on all levels.

Opening the heart center provides a gateway for other energy centers to open and release blocked energy, whether physical or mental. The heart has to be open for us to receive the love and compassion we need to heal and grow out of hurt and trauma. Fortunately, the physical aspect is simple and, when done gently and consistently, leads to an openness to love and life.

You might begin by trying one or all of these. Sit quietly first and ask yourself what you need. Trust what comes to your mind and heart and go from there.

Stand with your feet comfortable wide apart and your arms at your sides. On a slow inhale raise your arms to the sides and up over your head. As you exhale, bring your arms to the sides and behind your back, interlacing your fingers. Inhale and raise your arms behind you to a comfortable level as you press forward through your chest. Take 3 slow breaths as you feel your chest expand and soften with each breath. Release your hands and inhale as you raise your arms to shoulder level. Exhale and bring them in front of you at shoulder level. Interlace your fingers with your palms facing away from you. Roll your shoulder blades apart and draw your breast bone inward. Take 3 slow breaths as you feel your mid-back expand and soften with each breath. Draw your hands toward your chest to release. Stand quietly for a moment.

Fitness Ball:  Sit on the ball for a few breaths to settle into yourself. Slowly roll and lay back with the ball under your rib cage. Let yourself release into the support of the ball and expand into your breath. If this is new to you, remain for 3 – 5 breaths and slowly come up. If you are accustomed to this position, stay on the ball as long as you like, keeping your awareness at the heart center and breathing slowly and deeply. Come up or off the ball slowly as your head is back while in this position. Be aware of what you are experiencing even as you release.

Yoga Bolster or Blanket:  If you use a blanket, please be sure it is thick enough when folded to be at least 4 inches high. If you have yoga blocks, place one or two under your blanket for height. Place your support under your body, aligning it with the length of your spine from the base of your head to your waist. Let your hips relax down to the floor and open your arms out to the sides at about shoulder level. This opens the chest and you can relax into the breath. Stay as long as you are comfortable, coming up slowly and quietly to preserve a sense of comfort within the openness.

With any or all of these techniques, it is important to hold a clear intention of opening the heart for the purpose of balance and wholeness. These suggestions may bring other options to mind that suit you more specifically. Feel free to play with ideas and find what works for you.

Peace be with you, fellow travelers. May your mind and heart be open. May you be healthy and whole. May you be free.  Namaste.

Ahimsa

Ahimsa (अहिंसा, Ahiṃsā), loosely translated, means abstinence from violence either by thought, word, or deed. Non-injury requires a harmless mind, mouth, and hand. In a positive sense, it implies compassion and cosmic love. It is the development of a mental attitude in which hatred is replaced by love. The scriptures define ahimsa as the true sacrifice, forgiveness, power, and strength. At its core, ahimsa is based on the intentions of a person whose focus is to not harm anyone. (Krishna Maheshwari as quoted in www.hindupedia.com ).

Ahimsa is most often defined as “to do no harm.”  When I attended certification training through Integrative Yoga Therapy with Joseph LePage, he sat with us quietly one evening under a tree and strummed his guitar. He sang to us in English, Spanish and Portuguese, soothing our minds, bodies and souls. We were exhausted from long days and nights of practice and study. As everyone settled and began to relax, he quietly told us that we would have the next day off and that he had arranged transportation to take us all to an arts festival near a lake. Of course we were delighted. Then he sang to us again and quietly added, “To push further would be an act of violence or himsa, which is contrary to everything that I believe and am teaching you.”

We were shocked. We spent the next three hours exploring this idea of himsa/ahimsa with him. He would ask a question and not allow us to answer until we sat in silence for ten minutes. Joseph lovingly and compassionately guided us into our beliefs and behaviors to help us see the violence we do to ourselves as well as the violence we do to others and our world. He insisted we use the word violence rather than harm, which sounds and feels softer, not so “bad.” He helped us understand that, even words spoken softly ,but with ill intent, are violent to the hearer.

It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I am still learning to live in the truth of what I opened to that night.

Understanding and practicing ahimsa requires wisdom and balance.

Ahimsa is the acme of bravery. Ahimsa is not possible without fearlessness…Violence is generally considered to be ignorance, but when used to protect the lives of the weak and defenseless, it is considered to be Ahimsa. (www.hindupedia.com )

One of the basic practices of ahimsa is to mindfully notice the thoughts you hold toward yourself. What do you say to yourself when you drop an egg on the kitchen floor? Is your first thought “The easiest way to pick this up is with a spatula” or “That was stupid. I’m as clumsy as ever!”? One expresses ahimsa and the other himsa.

Ahimsa must begin with one’s self. How am I committing violence, doing harm to myself? The purpose of this practice is to forgive and heal in order to shift each pattern as it is revealed. The balance is in learning to discover without judgement. Judgement does further violence to one’s self. To bravely face our own behavior and still forgive is no small thing. To develop new behaviors in the face of life-long patterns, deeply ingrained, takes strength and endurance.

Once begun within, ahimsa demands expression outside the self. Now mindful practice examines how I respond to others. Again the balance is in learning to discover without judgement, avoiding further violence to one’s self. The bravery and fearlessness manifests in making amends to those harmed or wounded and changing future behavior. Looking into the face of a loved one and admitting wrong, asking to be forgiven is an act of bravery and strength. Doing the same while looking into the eyes of an enemy is a monumental accomplishment.

Yes, I said “looking into the eyes of…” Living in different places may require a phone call. Yes, a phone call! Texting and emailing are distant and impersonal. I have witnessed a number of relationships killed by the lack of personal interaction. Hearing each other’s voices and looking into each other’s eyes moves us more quickly into love and compassion for ourselves and the other person. The eyes are truly the windows of the soul. Looking softly into the eyes of another allows me to see another being learning to be human. I see parts of myself and find it impossible to be defensive or mean. Allowing another person to look into my eyes requires that I be open and vulnerable to their gaze, to their seeing into my soul. Now the process of healing can begin.

As you sit with these thoughts, practice gentle compassion toward yourself. Take small steps to change patterns of violence and harm. Be brave and strong in the process. Facing your truth can only lead you into the arms of Love, into your True Self, your Soul. Divine Love dwells in you and desires to manifest through you as naturally as a river flows toward the sea. I’ll meet you at the ocean’s edge and we will ride its waves together.

Namaste.

Mindful in Death

The person who probably knows me best in this world has said to me several times over the years, “You do death better than anyone I know.”

It takes me back when she says it because I find the experience of being with a loved one as they make their transition, losing their presence in my life, even saying goodbye to my darling furry friends to be extremely intense emotionally, physically and mentally.

I was a yoga practitioner and doing my internship for yoga teacher certification when my mother made her transition. Following my intuition, I flew across country to be with her and my father, arriving late on a Wednesday night. When Dad took me to the hospital the next day, I knew she was dying. She had only just been admitted the day before though she had previously been in cancer treatment. The intensity almost overwhelmed me at one point. I put my head down on the side of her bed and had trouble breathing. Then, I was able to soften my rib cage and begin to breathe to my belly. I was holding her in my arms at 4:10 am Sunday as her last whisper of breath passed her lips. My one wish for her was that she not die alone because she had feared that all her life. It was my privilege to be her companion those last hours.

After my mother’s death, I called my mentor and teacher, Joseph LePage, founder of Integrative Yoga Therapy. His love and compassion soothed my weary soul. I was exhausted on every level. Joseph directed me to a book titled The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. This book enlightened me to the experience I had just had with my mother and prepared me to be more mindfully present present when my father made his transition.

The most powerful thing I remember from that book is the Buddhist practice of “watering the seeds of your loved one’s happiness.” It is simple. You tell them your loving memories of their life and your times with them. For example, before we brought Dad home, while he was still conscious, I sat with him and reminded him of when I was a little girl and would get a splinter in my finger or hand. Once when I was about five years old, I waited all afternoon for him to come home. My dad had very large hands and, as he told me late in his life, the thought of taking a splinter out of my tiny finger scared him. He did it anyway because I needed him to be the one. My big, strong Daddy faced his fears of hurting me in order to help me.

When Mom was dying, we sat around her hospital bed and told so many funny stories about her life and ways. She was a brilliant woman with an outrageous sense of humor. We didn’t know we were watering the seeds of her happiness and preparing her to leave her body in a place of love and happiness. Love and laughter draw the awareness to the highest chakras in the body. This is the goal so that the life force energy, the soul or spirit, leaves through the crown chakra.

My father died at home with minimal hospice care. I was alone with him as well though he left as I entered the room that last night to kiss him goodnight. The experience with him was equally intense but in very different ways and I was privileged to be his companion. Before he died, I taught his grandchildren how to water the seeds of his happiness by sharing their favorite memories. So many wonderful stories.

My parents knew our love as they made their transitions quietly and peacefully. I wouldn’t trade those days and hours for anything.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying teaches the continuation of this practice for forty days after death. I have embraced this practice because it is a beautiful way to move through grief after a profound loss. It soothes the heart and mind.

Perhaps this practice is why my sister-friend tells me I do death so well…because I have found what works for me. Watering the seeds of my parents’ and others’ happiness waters the seeds of my happiness as well. Those seeds produce the most amazing fruits in my life:  divine compassion, understanding, deeper awareness of the Divine Presence, the importance of mindful presence in this moment, and a lack of fear when contemplating my own eventual death. Other gifts are beyond my ability to articulate.

To be mindful in the moment is to embrace and experience each moment without trying to control what that moment contains. Be not afraid for Love is with you All Ways and each moment comes with gifts you cannot even begin to imagine until they arrive!

Conscious Hugging

In his book Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh says

Hugging is a beautiful Western custom, and we from the East would like to contribute the practice of conscious breathing to it. When you hold a child in your arms, or hug your mother, or your husband, or your friend, if you breathe in and out three times, your happiness will be multiplied at least tenfold.

Hugging in this way was taught to me by Joseph LePage, founder of Integrative Yoga Therapy. I was attending my basic certification to become a yoga teacher. Joseph held me and whispered “Breathe with me, Catherine.” We took those three slow breaths and my world changed. He also taught me to go to my right when hugging someone I wanted to draw close, aligning our hearts.

My original college major was nursing. In the neonatal unit, we learned to care for premature infants. The medical community was just realizing the importance of touch in the lives of infants. One of our babies fit in my hand – his head resting on the heel of my hand and his feet barely reaching over my fingertips. As a student nurse I was tasked with holding him and whispering to him in the incubator. I remember the head nurse showing me how to slip my hand underneath him and then to let the fingers of my other hand rest lightly over his body. She said “To him, this feels like a hug. He needs our touch to thrive and survive.” I was rotated to another unit but we were told six months later that he was able to go home. He had survived and now could be held next to his parents’ hearts.

We all need to be held, hugged, and touched to thrive and survive. Human contact meets needs deep within us. Mindful hugging is a gift we give to others and to ourselves. I can tell when a person hugs me whether or not they are aware and actually feel me in their arms. I like it when they are. I can tell when I hug another person whether or not I am aware and actually feel that person in my arms. I like it when I am.

Conscious hugging, now this is a practice worth nurturing!