Friday, April 3, 2009

Sun Salutations

One of the greatest pleasures we can feel in life is the warmth of sunshine. The sun is vital to our health, to our spirits, and to our planet. If the Earth was further away from the sun, we'd freeze. If it was closer, we'd live on a scorched, lifeless orb. Our distance from the Sun is crucial to life as we know on it on Earth. The sun helps our food grow, it creates a temperate environment and a regulates the seasons, as we orbit around it. The sun provides our bodies with much needed Vitamin D. It's not any wonder that people in far Northern climates (like my own) crave the feeling of sunshine during the longest of winter months. When we go on vacation each Spring, I feel the sunshine in my first steps out of the airport and think, "Yes! This is just what I've been missing!". Sunshine is simply vital to our well being; body, mind and spirit.

Therefore, it's not surprising that the earliest recorded cultures, many of them exceptionally sophisticated, all worshipped the sun. The Egyptians had Ra, their Sun God, who was the supreme ruler over all. The Sumerians believed in Shamesh, and built temples to him all over present day Iran and Iraq. The Mayans, Aztecs and Incans all had complicated divinity systems based on their worship of their Sun God. In Asia, Tian Shu Zhu was the primary deity in the Ancient world, whose images were then blended and transformed into more contemporary Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism. The Ancient Maori people in Australia called their own Sun God Tane. The most extraorindary aspect of all of these belief systems is how strikingly similar they are. It strikes me as quite remarkable that ancient peoples, years and miles apart, would create such vivid images and beliefs, without contact with one another. Literally every ancient people, on every continent had beliefs that were remarkably alike. While their rituals differed greatly, the underlying message of the Sun's importance to their very survival was key.

In Yoga, we practice a series of poses called Sun Salutations. While some groups have tried to label these asanas as sun worship, this simply isn't true. Sun Salutations are a physical manifestation of the sun's progress across the sky. They were developed in India to mimic the power, grace and movement of the sun, but not to deify it. Religious ideals aside, Sun Salutations are the backbone asanas of any Yoga practice, regardless of style. More restorative classes create gentle, peaceful arcs of movement, slowly working through the progression. Power Yoga classes will hold each pose for much longer and or will increase their speed to maximize the cardio benefit. Regardless of the tone of the Yoga class, the series of asanas remains constant, and a complete series can bring a sense of strength, flexibility, toning and focus to the practitioner. They are a wonderful way to begin a practice, or to simply begin one's day. While each asana on its own can offer tremendous benefits, it's both the complete series and sequence that can lead to overall good health and wellness.

If you live in a climate, as I do, in which the sun is often stealth, I recommend doing whatever you can to enjoy the sunshine when it's available. On cold days, put a comfortable chair near a sunny window and close your eyes to soak up the gentle rays. Even in chilly weather, bundle up and head out for a short walk. I'm not a believer in tanning beds, due to the skin damage. I believe that natural sun is much healthier, even if it's in small doses. So, find what you need to do, during the long, dark months, to get what little sunshine you can. Remember to exercise in ways that help boost your endorphins, and always appreciate the sun when you do have it.

Although we're into "Mud Season" right now (Maine's euphemism for Spring), just being outside and getting a little bit of early yard clean up down can feel magnificent. Just remember to wear both sunscreen and Wellies. Even mud can be a great reminder that the sun is melting away the snow!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April Fool's!

When I was growing up, April Fool's Day took on a life of its own. My father was a master prankster. A humorous man with a powerful business side, one could never quite tell when Dad was pulling your leg, or when he was dead serious. Dad was well known for his logical, common sense approach to the advertising and hotel industries and his forward thinking policies remain current decades later.

Still, Dad was never one to give up the opportunity to make light of a situation...especially himself. One of the ways in which I most admired my father was his ability to laugh at himself and not to take his own 'press' too seriously. As serious person person, learning to gain a sense of humor was on my list of goals to achieve. And, Dad was only partially kidding when he told me to put it on my list.

April Fool's Day rolled around our house every year, and every year I was taken in by Dad's deadpan expression or his unbridled excitement. When we lived in New York, our home had a dock right on Long Island Sound. One of my favorite places to play was at the dock area, gathering shells, and even finding horseshoe crabs at low tide. Year after year, he'd wake me up with "Ellen, there's a whale on the dock!". Year after year, I would run down the lawn to the dock, with Shamu nowhere to be seen.

After our family relocated to the Ranch in California, and I was crazy in love with my overweight, but extremely gentle pony, Frosty, Dad called from our barn with extreme glee. He let me know that Frosty had not just been fat, she had been pregnant, and I was now the proud "Mama" of a little white foal. He let me squeal with delight until he began offering names for our newest barn resident. "April Fool" topped that list. It took me a few minutes to catch on that year.

By the time I left for prep school and college, I was pretty well jaded to any of Dad's April Fool's jokes. For the entire last week of March, I'd write notes to myself not to believe a word he'd say. I steeled myself for any ploy, no matter how clever or enticing. I thought I'd gotten quite astute at detecting Dad's pranks. That is, until my junior year of college.

Dad phoned me, as usual, and asked about my classes, my friends and life in Massachusetts. I asked him about the hotel, my Mom and our many animals. Then, ever so non-chalantly, Dad mentioned that Mick Jagger (whose poster hung in my dorm room) had been to Brunch in our beautiful hotel restaurant. Dad knew what a Rolling Stones fan I was, and I just rolled my eyes at this pathetic attempt at trickery. I said, "Sure, Dad. Whatever you say." I didn't believe a word of it. That is, I didn't believe a word of it until weeks later, when I spoke with my mom, and she asked, "Oh, and did Dad tell you that Mick Jagger was at the Ranch a few weeks ago?". My jaw just about hit the floor. The best prank of all...and Dad had been setting it up for 20 years: it was true, but he knew I wouldn't believe it.

And, so I end this blog post with a thought, "some of the best jokes aren't jokes at all, but it's all how you tell the story....".

Happy April Fool's Day! I miss you, Dad.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Running...sort of..

Despite the fact that I'm a Yoga instructor for my work, I am not an athlete. If anything, I'm the anti-athlete. I lack the basic coordination to put one foot in front of the other in the most routine of manners. I fall easily, usually tripping over objects invisible to everyone but me. On my first date with my husband, I even tripped down a flight of stairs. I'm positive he had no idea the level of klutziness he was getting himself into for the rest of his life. Yoga has been an incredible blessing for me, not only because it has given me a sense of where my heart is, and what it can accomplish, but also a deep appreciation of body awareness. I still have a hard time navigating terrain that's anything more challenging than a manicured path, but at least I'm aware of body positioning in a way I'd never experienced previously.

However, after my serious illness in October 2007, in which both of my lungs collapsed and my heart filled with fluid, I found I had to explore new ways to improve my lung strength. My yoga practice was instrumental in my recovery, and I'm profoundly grateful for that. Still, I needed to regain lung capacity that I'd lost. Walking was not strenuous enough, and so, for the first time in my life, I've begun running. I have to admit that it's been an illuminating experience for me. In the past, I'd watch runners jog by and think, "Aren't they amazing?". This was usually followed by the sentiment of "Thank goodness that's not me", as I'd think about a glass of Pinot Grigio and a big piece of sourdough bread. I had never been a runner and never wanted to be a runner. But, in order to regain my ability to breathe properly I had to become that which I'd disparaged.

I've learned two things about running: 1) That it's not an easy as it looks, and 2) That it's not as hard as it looks. These opposing sentiments probably make complete sense to an experienced runner. When I began running, I started off running, unintentionally, just like Phoebe, from "Friends", in that infamous episode in which she runs just like a wild five year old on a playground. I'll never forget her words of “I run like I did when I was a kid because that’s the only way it’s fun. Didn’t you ever run so fast that you thought your legs were going to fall off?”. While it wasn't pretty, it was the only way to get me moving, initially. I had to let go of all preconceived notions I'd had about what runners looked like, or I'd never begin my laps around the track. I had to let go of thinking of running as hard work, and just begin to think of it as 'fun' in a kindergarten sort of way. My teenage daughter made running playlists for me and I would sing along to the Black Eyed Peas while running with wild abandon. My lungs ached almost immediately. Yet, the joy of moving and being ridiculous, singing "My Humps", as I jogged, helped me to get over me self-consciousness, as well as my initial, painful lung expansion.

After weeks of this, my husband, a long time runner, became concerned about my pulling muscles....and I'm sure, about what the rest of our town probably thought of my 'style'. He helped me correct my running step, stride by stride. I learned to run heel-toe, rather than on top of my toes the whole time. This helped me to run further, and also got rid of those pesky shin splints. I had to learn the scientific mechanics of running properly. This was much harder than I'd anticipated for a motion that should be 'natural'. I broke down every centimeter of movement to maximize my stride, to minimize injury and to continue to grow in my goal of increasing lung capacity. I began timing myself to push further. After all, if I can run for longer periods, then I can strengthen my lungs further. I learned to self-analyze my running motion and to be aware of each step.

At this point, my old hostility towards running returned. I began to resent it. It seemed to be too harsh, too analytical and too limiting. I began feeling envious of those runners who seemed so effortless and, yet powerful, with every stride. I had evil daydreams of tripping the perfect, sweatless runners as they passed me. I realized that once my critical nature set in, it was only a matter of time before I quit altogether. So, I've found a happy medium. I still sing hip hop songs to myself (most of the time) when I run, but I am not quite as worried about how far I go or how long. As long as I feel my lungs working, and my legs cooperating, I realized that I was doing just fine. I began to take time to just be in the moment and let go of the 'hard' part, while still taking a bit more seriously the 'easy part'.

What is it in your own life that represents something you would rather not do? Is there a challenge you are facing that could be made better by starting something new? If so, think about beginning as simply as possible. You don't need to be perfect: at cooking, at learning a computer skill or at starting a new activity. Keep all of your focus exclusively on enjoying the chaos of beginnings. Treat your new project as a kindergartner would: with reckless abandon and joy. If you make a mess? Who cares? Just get into your new adventure with the spirit of childhood to motivate you forward.

Once you have become comfortable in your new "place", there will always be time to add in finishing skills, if you choose. You can learn to tweak your new project and improve it slowly. But, trying to begin 'perfectly' in almost medium is a set up for failure. You need to ignite the fun before you can fine tune the mechanics.

And, if your neighbors stare? Let them. Give them something to think about when they're busy *not* starting a new endeavor. And smile!