You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf – Jon Kabat-Zinn
As Omicron is fueling the start of Canada’s 6th COVID-19 wave, we are once again challenged to anchor ourselves on the shifting ground beneath us. We are acutely aware of what is like to live in ambiguity, in a state of uncertainty coupled with constant change. We seek ways to quiet the brain and find stability and inner balance to be able to maintain equilibrium even when we face the opposite.
For the past two years my husband and I have cared for my elderly mother who has just celebrated her 98th birthday! We have remained in extreme isolation for her safety and wellbeing while the seasons have flowed one into the other. Each day I have intentionally sought moments of calm and grounding. It has been on my yoga mat, during walks, or when painting where I have felt the most stable, centered and peaceful. Engagement in yoga, creativity and mindfulness, even in small fifteen-minute increments, can have a huge impact for these amazing practises best support us and provide wellness, wholeness and healing as we navigate the challenges that arise in our lives.
Painting is a beautiful meditation for me. With a focused mind, a slow and steady breath guides the paintbrush in my hand. As I paint, I experience integration as mind body and breath become one and my soul is expressed in my creative art. A few months ago I completed a large mandala painting. The dominant colours in it are two shades of turquoise representing the sky and water. In the center of the painting there is a sun and moon. I named the painting “Unity.”
The word Yoga or Yug means to yoke, to join, to unite. Hatha is a Sanskrit word that is often translated as force or power, and the word can be broken down into two smaller words: “ha” meaning sun, and “tha” meaning moon. One part of what the yoga practitioner is doing can be understood as balancing the ebb and flow of the two primary energy channels in the body, the male and female attributes called the Ida and Pingala, thus in a sense uniting the solar and lunar energies or elements of the body.
The purpose of Hatha Yoga technically refers to a branch of yoga in which the physical exercises known as asanas or postures are used beginning with exertion and then working towards more subtle practises such as: pranayama, breath work; the bandhas, energetic locks; the flow of prana, life energy; and, eventually moving to meditation and one-mindedness.
In our practise we focus on creating and sustaining a stable foundation in our asanas, postures. Creating stability before anything else is a key principle in yoga practise; we learn the correct actions, practise them a lot, and ultimately we understand how to recreate these actions for stability as needed. Transferring this sensation from our mat into daily life equips us to face the unexpected challenges that inevitably come our way and helps us to balance on the ever-changing shifting ground. We create stability by connecting to the earth, consciously establishing the earth element in our feet, legs and pelvis or with any part of our body that is touching the ground. Then from a stable foundation, extension and expansion in body, mind and spirit can unfold. By directing our attention to our heart center, we lift up the chest, open up the door of the sternum and drop into the seat of our heart. When we access the energies within our heart, we can imagine them spreading like the rays of the sun and moon and our love and loving kindness can shine outwardly. We experience a feeling of integration and unity within ourselves.
Tadasana, mountain pose may seem like a simple pose but it is one of the most important ones because it has so many things to teach us. There are many intricate and interconnected actions in this pose and when executed with awareness, alignment and precision, and reflection, a sense of stability and balance occurs. As you ground your heels, extend and spread your toes and lift your arches, you root into the earth. B.K.S. Iyengar spoke to the idea that our feet are greeting the earth as the earth rises up to meet our feet. When the gaze is steady, the body is active and the mind is quiet, consciousness spreads throughout. As the embodiment of tadasana happens, you are at home standing right here in the moment, grounded and stable as the mountain.
I feel deep reverence for the lake upon which we have been living during these last two years: swimming in the summer, kayaking in the fall, and walking across it through the winter. The lake is fundamental to my experience here. Over the years, my yoga practise has consistently occurred right at the edge of the dock surrounded by water, the rocks, trees and sky or in full view of this imagery when practicing inside. With a soft gaze, steady breath and an open heart, I feel myself becoming absorbed into the beauty of nature which envelops me. Like the constant movements and shifting positions of the sun, and the moon, the clouds, the stars and the shadows, the magnificent light is always ever-changing, while I seek stability, balance and stillness in my practise.
This is the year I celebrate forty years of dedicated yoga practise! Forty is an important number for it is a symbol of unity and wholeness. The yoga path of self-transformation guides us to become a more wholesome being with greater harmony and a healthy equilibrium brought about by alignment and balance. The timing of when I had been inspired to create a painting that depicts a symbolic expression of unity was very interesting and a good example of a synchronistic event for a few weeks after completing my painting, I experienced something beautiful that illuminated for me how a consistent yoga practise, like creativity, brings us home to ourselves and helps us to connect within in a deeply integrated way. A devoted practise also enables us to understand and feel a union with all that surrounds us.
Late one afternoon, the clouds cleared to reveal the sun and a bright blue sky. My mother calls the reflection of the light on the lake “sparkling diamonds” and as they were shimmering brightly they caught my eye. It felt as if a magnetic draw was pulling me outside and although I had already gone for my daily walk earlier in the afternoon, I took my dog and we headed back out onto the frozen lake. After walking southeastwardly for about ten minutes the full moon caught my attention as it peaked above the trees on my left. It was luminescent and magnificent. The sun, on my right, was low in the sky, vibrant and intense. I was excited to experience this alignment in such an open vast space and kept walking until we were positioned exactly in line with the sun and moon. I thought about the unity within these energies and in my own inner solar and lunar elements, and also about the idea of a union between the outer natural world and my inner world. As I breathed in the fresh air and embraced the moment, I felt absolutely exhilarated!
In appreciation for the opportunity to witness this alignment in such a beautiful setting, and with a sense of humility I sat in gratitude on the lake. Seated in sukhasana, cross-legged seated pose, my dog happily sat down next to me and we remained as such for some time. Aligning and opening the channel of my spine, I lifted my chest up and dropped into my sternum. The gateways of my heart opened and I felt that I was touching my embodiment in many different layers – from the outer to the inner and right to the innermost layer of my heart. Spontaneously, I began to practice ujjayi pranayama, a breathing technique, inhaling the pure air and stillness and exhaling softness and ease. Continually bringing my mind back to my heart center and staying with the sensations around it for several minutes, I felt that my prana, life force or energy was flowing freely and that I was radiating my heart energy out in every direction.
Well supported in hiking boots, I also spontaneously practiced tadasana, mountain pose, standing still on the lake for several minutes before heading back. Even with the heavy boots and the snow, there was a lightness and steadiness to my every step for this experience on the lake was very uplifting while also very grounding. My time on the lake that afternoon felt like a meaningful gift; it provided me with the chance to experience the fruits of my devotion to yoga. It was also a rare opportunity to be physically aligned at once with both energies of the sun and moon in such a setting, and as I walked I pondered the possibility of whether or not we become conduits for these energies while also considering the uniting of my own ida, solar element and pingala, moon element. All of this was indeed very moving. In those exquisite moments of stillness and harmony on the lake that afternoon, I felt a deep sense of unity and boundlessness.
When we engage in the powerful, healing practises of yoga, creativity and mindfulness, we develop skills to still the fluctuations of the mind, “chitta vritti nirodha” (Patanjali’s definition of yoga), we are at one with everything, and we become more present in each moment. It is through our involvement in these transformative processes that we learn how to ground and center ourselves and sustain our focus. As we develop our skills and feel a greater sense of stability, a heightened awareness and understanding of the underlying unity of all things occurs. Through self-reflection and study, we evolve and hone our abilities to access and more fully understand our feelings, thoughts and insights, and express them with greater ease and more authenticity.
We are living in a time of instability, unrest and unpredictability. As we continue to face our changing world with the ongoing uncertainty of the global pandemic, and the horrific heartbreaking situation in Ukraine and the ripple effects of it, we need to be able to cope with a range of feelings including sadness and anger and anxiety, and for some also heal from trauma. Carving out small increments of time each day to take part in these timeless traditions of yoga, creativity and mindfulness, will provide us many excellent tools and invaluable benefits to help us maintain our equilibrium.
“So powerful is the light of unity that it will illuminate the whole earth.”
“Only humility will lead us to unity, and unity will lead to peace.”