Wednesday, August 26, 2009


For as long as I can remember, I have been crazy in love with Dolphins. Every breed, from the unusual pink Amazon River Dolphin to the majestic Orca (wrongly referred to as Killer Whales, though actually not of the whale family) have captured both my imagination and my heart. Each time I've seen a show at Marine World, or been fortunate to experience dolphins at aquariums, I find myself moved to tears. Their interaction, their level of trust, their utter joy at simply being alive and well cuts to the heart of what being on this Earth means to me. I have held fast to a long standing dream to swim with dolphins one day....and it's a dream that I hope comes true eventually.

I am not alone in my passionate attachment to these extraordinary marine mammals. When asked what a person's favorite animal is, dolphin always ranks among the Top Ten, regardless of most cultures. Dolphins cut across country lines, they unite disagreeing factions and they remain a symbol of intelligence throughout different groups of people. Dolphins have been studied extensively, and are among the most highly rated by academics, zoologists and marine biologists for their creative and lateral thinking skills. The only animals that come close to dolphins' problem solving nature are chimpanzees and great apes, but there is much debate as to whether or not dolphins rank higher on the intellectual scale. In my own mind, there is room enough for all wonderful creatures.....and to learn the lessons meant to enlighten us from each of them.

Many Ancient cultures revered dolphins, but none valued them as much as the Ancient Minaoans, followed by the Greeks and then Ancient Romans. While the Romans, when borrowing much of their own culture from the Greeks, appropriated dolphins as "respected beings", they added their own spin on the many mythic tales regarding dolphins. The stories are legendary; many involve dolphins as humans, turned into sea creatures by the gods. Others see dolphins as the special, helpful ambassadors from Poseidon (or Neptune, in Roman lore). It's easy to make this connection as countless tales, in recorded history, have given us examples of dolphins aiding swimmers who were drowning, or sailors who have fallen overboard. It's a simple enough step to imagine the sea god, aiding humans by sending his favored servants to assist. Dolphins appear in the myths of Dionysis and the poet Arion, and were considered sacred to the Goddess Aphrodite. Like a dolphin, Aphrodite herself was born of the sea. So popular were they, that many coins and official seals held the image of a dolphin. But, the Mediterranean was not the only example of dolphin worship and appreciation: in the Ganges River, the Hindu believe the dolphin to be the river deity who will announce the arrival of the Goddess, and who will also act as her mount. In the Amazon River, the dolphins are called "Enchandados"...shape shifters who can alter their form between human and river dweller. They are respected, admired and revered. Sadly, despite all this appreciation, the only real threat to dolphins are humans.

As dolphins figure prominently in so many cultures, it isn't surprising that Dolphin Pose exists in Yoga, which began in India, but has taken influence from many other locations. Dolphin pose resembles downward facing dog, the 'workhorse' of all yoga asanas. However, Dolphin requires even more flexibility and upper body strength, just as a real dolphin would. While reaching one's head to the floor, and supporting one's upper body weight on the forearms, the yogini is also reaching her tailbone for the ceiling and her heels for the floor. It's a pose that takes a great deal of practice and concentration. Yet, when done correctly, this asana is a great deal of fun. It's an inversion, allowing the body to reverse blood flow. Dolphin pose is also a tremendous opener, of both body and mind. I have discovered that terrific ideas come to my mind when I'm in Dolphin pose. I've also found that problems I've set aside during my yoga practice find answers just 'come to me' while in this pose. Much like the creative thinking dolphin, the pose itself requires an open mind, and a playful spirit, and the benefits are exceptional.

There are many lessons we can take away from the dolphins: we can learn that intelligence takes time out to play. We can learn that motherhood involves a great deal of affectionate touching. We can learn that we can come up with answers to an immediate problem can come to us 'on the fly'. We can learn that singing (or vocalizing) can be done just for the joy of it, as well as for communication. Finally, we can learn that, no matter how advanced we may be, we will always be at the mercy of someone stronger. It's my hope that we can learn the proper lessons from these extraordinary creatures...but not at their expense.

Monday, August 24, 2009

All Through the Night

Sleep, my child, and peace attend thee, All through the night. Guardian angels, God will send thee, All through the night. Soft the drowsy hours are creeping; Hill and dale in slumber sleeping. I my loving vigil keeping, All through the night. The English Hymnal #268

The the song above is such a common lullaby that many people forget that it is a hymn, appearing in more than 16 different denominational hymnals. Peter, Paul & Mary recorded a version, as did Cyndy Lauper, Charlotte Church, Josh Groban, Cole Porter and countless other musicians. The Irish church claims it as an Irish song. The Welsh have attributed it to traditional Welsh folk tunes, and it's been recorded, many times, sung in Welsh. The oldest printed lyrics I could find include "All Through the Night" in an English hymnal. Regardless of this song's origins, it has a beautiful, haunting, magical melody and reassuring lyrics. I used to sing it (not nearly as beautifully as the professionals) to my children when they were babies. I still hum it to myself when I need a few moments to clear my head at the end of a very busy day. I'm certain that passing strangers have thought me a madwoman humming it softly, when I'm on an airplane. But, it's comforting, it's peaceful and it's familiar. It takes me back to days of having a newborn curled up into my side, and to simpler moments in the journey of parenthood.

In an age in which sleep disorders are at an all time high, is it any wonder that I'm attracted to a lullaby? In any coffee shop, at any meeting or at any parents' group gathering, the most common topic is how exhausted everyone is. It appears that no one I know sleeps well, myself included. Sleep disorder clinics are on the rise, and many have waiting lists. Prescriptions for sleep aid drugs, such as Ambien, are 5 times what they were just ten years ago. The Center for Disease Control, as well as numerous Health Service agencies, recommend that adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. The AMA set forth these reasons why adults need an average of 8 hours of sleep per night: good sleep may reduce your risk of depression, of diseases, of maintaining a healthy weight (and blood pressure), of bolstering memory, of increased synaptic activity during the day, may help prevent cancer and may assist in your body's repairing of injuries. These are perfectly understandable and straight forward benefits...And yet, if we can't fall asleep, or remain sleeping 'all through the night', how can we reap the benefits of good sleep habits?

For many of us, there is an inability to shut off our brains when it's night time. The majority of us walk around overstimulated most of the day. We have to-do lists that exceed our ability, we are bombarded by media (from radio to television to the Internet) all day long and we feel constantly behind if we aren't being 'productive' at every waking moment. We have worries that range from small issues (such as a child's nasty teacher) to larger ones (such as the current financial crisis). We are deeply concerned about politics, the environment, war, famine, disease, plane crashes and a plethora of other globally impacting issues that are beyond our control. Is it any wonder that our bodies are exhausted but our minds are still reeling from the ramifications of the day's events....either to our own lives, or to the world at large? As a result, we drink an awful lot of coffee to perk us in the morning, only to find we need that caffeine the rest of the day. The caffeine in our systems is another reason we may have a difficult time 'switching off' at night. Just as there are health benefits to 'good sleeping', there are negative ones to lack of sleep: inability to focus and concentrate, loss of memory ability, loss of job performance, poor health and increased risks for nearly every health complication. If worrying about aspects of our lives is enough to keep us awake, it's amazing how many of us lie in bed at night, worried about our not being able to fall asleep!

There are many schools of thought on achieving a good night's sleep that lasts "all through the night". Some doctors do recommend drugs, used in the short term, to help 'jump start' one's body into sleeping well. My own experience, while I was a cancer patient, was so negative with these drugs, that I have a hard time understanding the benefits. I found an increase in the ability to fall asleep, but was beset by nightmares. Therefore, I have a difficult time recommending them to others. There are also homeopathic versions of sleep aids that some people have found to be incredibly helpful. I found them to be less harsh on my overactive psyche, but they were also less effective in helping me fall asleep. This journey led me to find other methods in sleep enhancement.

Ruling out all chemical and/or locational disruptive sources is the first rule of thumb. I've discovered that not having any caffeine (including chocolate) after lunch can make a huge difference. I've also learned which foods simply do not allow me to rest easily. As much as I crave spicy food all day, when my eyes are wide awake, staring at the dog snoring at 2 AM, I realize that the Kung Pao Chicken was not my best choice for a late snack. Another culprit can be all the lights we all have on in our rooms. My bedroom is equal parts sleeping space, office and family room. Therefore, we have a great deal of electronic equipment in our room. From the TV to the DVD player to the computer (and all its components) to the Wii and multiple phones, our room is a veritable fortress of technology. All of these gizmo's emit wave frequencies that can actually be stimulating. I make certain, at this point, to have everything as turned off as possible, since it's simply not within my space limitations to remove it all from my room (though that's what's recommended by most sleep specialists). Establishing a routine can also be helpful: a cup of a herbal tea, a book, the same music each evening and a warm bath, can all set the mood for a good night's sleep...particularly when done every night.

Finally, one of the ways I have learned to turn off my hamster wheel, chihuahua yapping brain is to count my blessings. Unlike the old method of counting sheep (which I've done to infinity without effect), counting our blessings, no matter how slight or small, can be a way to counteract the effects of an anxious mind. By reminding ourselves of all the good things in our lives, of the good fortune in our days, of the way we were able to aid others and of the largesse that came our way, we can remember why we have earned our rest. I don't just express my gratitude for a financial or professional boon. I just try to express my thankfulness at being alive and well for one more day. I am grateful that I did not have a car accident and that my children are remaning safe in their travels. I'm able to be happy that the sun did shine, or that a beautiful snow fell. I'm appreciative to have eyes that can see, ears that can hear and hands that can be put to good use. No matter how irrational my fears, I can content myself with the knowledge that, at this very moment, I am safe, I am well and I am protected. I find that, as I can express in my heart, each of the blessings that have come my way, my eyelids begin to droop...and I gently begin to fall asleep. The main idea is just let the blessings come to my mind; rather than creating yet another 'list' to be mentally gone over.

I wish each of you a good night's sleep tonight. May you feel loved, may you feel peaceful and most of all, may you feel sleepy.