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Straddling extremes in hard times

Throughout the pandemic my husband and I have been living up north with my mother with whom I share a very deep and special bond. Our relationship is seeped in mutual appreciation, respect and love. This extended time together has been very poignant; I am incredibly humbled by this experience and grateful for it. During the past six months I have also been coordinating and providing ongoing palliative care for my mother as a result of her cancer progression. I have learned about the importance of the principle of quality of life in palliative care and recognize that it will change as the disease progresses. Similarly, with the continual changes that the pandemic brings, one also need to be constantly examining and recalibrating one's quality of life.

Just as the pandemic has brought us into a place of uncertainty as we endure its surges and waves, plateaus and declines, we have simultaneously witnessed and helped to manage my mother’s health and the recurrent ebbs and flows of her energy as we live this pattern together. At 97, my mother has perfected many of the secrets to living fully and to managing her changing health while also riding through the pandemic. For example, when I recently asked her about her concept of time, she replied: “I don’t live in time, I am here now.” As yogis and meditators, this is exactly what we strive for. And this is what the pandemic has required from us.

Though the yoga teachings are thousands of years old, they remain especially relevant even today and are very much in need. By embracing the full wisdom of yoga (beyond just the asanas) we can learn about our selves, be led into a deep encounter with the self, and be able to access within us a whole inner world to help cope with personal difficulties, manage significant life events, and more easily live through a global health crisis. Yoga provides us with invaluable and accessible tools, techniques, and ideas to help guide us home to our center and to remain steady on shifting ground. It is always a challenge to keep the equilibrium when we are coping with whatever we are faced with for opposites are always present, and oftentimes we find ourselves seesawing between them. Yoga helps us to straddle the dualities, uncertainties, challenges and extremes with a greater sense of stability and grounding.

When my nephew recently asked me if I would teach him one pose a week that he could practise daily, he wondered if I knew what the first pose would be. I immediately responded, “Tadasana!” (mountain pose), one of the most difficult and rewarding of poses. For tadasana and all of the balancing standing poses greatly help us find our balance and stability. When we stand in tadasana, we may initially feel ungrounded, even swaying but as we mindfully attend to our feet we awaken a feeling of being anchored. As we continue to create a feeling of firmness and develop a sense of stability that relates to the earth element in the legs and pelvis, we simultaneously lift our trunk upwards, have greater balance, and begin to feel rooted at home in ourselves. We bring stability in mobility and mobility in stability, allowing stability to emerge. Though we may seesaw between opposites and even extremes, we can balance them. The outer world connects with the inner world, and there is unity between mind, body and breath.

Yoga guides us to be outside of time and inside of ourselves in the present moment. Even though my mother does not currently study nor practise yoga although she did with me in her late seventies, throughout her long life she has learned how to ride the endless waves that come her way. Over the year I have observed her be able to let go and flow with what is while remaining steady, stable and still as if standing in tadasana. As we learn to work with the breath with a sense of surrender, we can experience what it is to let go and we may discover that the truth begins to empower us. This is something that has become so important to do during this past year and a half.

If we view our obstacles not as frustrations but as opportunities for growth, learning and change, we can transcend our circumstances. In order to be able to adapt to the pandemic with courage, resilience and acceptance we have had to learn to let go of not only what we wish to control presently but also of what we had and even what we think we might still want. The pandemic has taught us to recognize more easily when things are within our control and when things are beyond our control. We are given frequent reminders that there is actually very little that we can control. Recently, my mother and son created a great memory, connecting and laughing hard together as she taught him the Yiddish expression, “Mer tracht, Gut lauft” meaning “Man plans, God laughs.”

One of my teachers from India, Father Joe Pereira, often recites the Serenity Prayer in his workshops: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” In many ways, my mother truly embodies the prayer as she receives whatever life brings to her exactly as it is with complete acceptance and serenity. She has always been my mentor, exquisitely modeling for me her remarkable ability to practise Santosha, contentment. Very wise and truly the most contented person I have ever known, I have loved observing her appreciation and enjoyment of the present moment. It is both gratifying and enlightening to witness how completely at ease, peaceful and calm she is in the moment. She will often express her gratitude for the simple pleasures that she experiences such as sharing a meal with loved ones, enjoying the view with her IceCapp or while sipping an Amaretto, and playing RummiKub.

Yoga is meant to help us to see beyond our own view, our small world. Yet in spite of decades of yoga and mindfulness practise, I am oftentimes challenged to remain in the here and now - especially at this time - because my mind drifts steadily into the future where there will be even more loss and grief. Intellectually, I know that the key is to not be preoccupied with what is coming. But the mind, the breath, and the citta, consciousness, changes like a kaleidoscope. Regular practise of yoga helps me to quiet the mind and teaches me how to control and even eliminate the mental fluctuations.

With concentrated and consistent practise, we can make voluntary changes to our world view, and bring balance to our breath which will bring about balance in the citta. As we look through our kaleidoscope, we can choose to see new and different perspectives and appreciate them whether viewed near the end of a long life, or during the hardships of a pandemic. Focusing on my mother through the mental lens of serenity, acceptance, clarity and calmness, my intention is to remain as fully and lovingly present as I can, enveloping her with compassion and love now in these precious moments in time, and as we journey together towards the future.

Embracing all that the powerful science of yoga offers us to cope with personal challenges and universal calamities, we strive for a sense of stability while literally grounding down. We can consciously decide to create alignment from the root of the spine to the crown of the head, open our hearts and minds to whatever is in the present moment, draw in from the deep well of our breath, and adjust our kaleidoscope. Then as we bring body, mind and breath into a state of balance, union and presence we are more able to successfully straddle the extremes in hard times.

“Life is like an ever-shifing kaleidoscope. A slight change, and all patterns alter.” – Sharon Saltzberg


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