How to Hang On–Day 30: This Moment

Today, I am immersed in duality.

Not wanting to move, but fidgeting incessantly; needing to complete multiple pre-surgery tasks, but tethered to online word games; nerves are kicking, but emotions are numb.

This dual nature is part and parcel of Life: in humans, in the environment, in politics, in socio-economics, in romance, in each and every one of us on many levels. Yet with duality comes dissatisfaction: One yearns to remain on one side or the other, to choose their comfortable spot. But as always, one must swing back and forth between states, which themselves are ever-changing.

And yet, my experience of this two-sided feeling somehow keeps me in the moment. As I wrangle with which way to turn, how to feel, and what to think, I can not bemoan or become nostalgic for what was; nor can I imagine or dream of what will be. I can stay only here and now, watching and waiting as my body and mind try to decipher their dueling nature—as I await a new experience, a new phase.

Whereas I have signed off from each day of the How to Hang On series with “’til tomorrow,” I won’t be doing that today. For tomorrow starts at dawn (or thereabouts), when I will be carted off to the surgical center by my best friend: The day will see me undergo my first surgery, my first anesthesia, and my first new hip. The eve will be a “girl’s night,” with my buddy enjoying wine, and me and my body trying to understand what is going on through a drug-induced haze.

One thing is clear, however: I am fortunate, and I am grateful.

’TIl next time… 

How to Hang On–Day 28: Breathe, Please

Now, more than ever, as the anticipated day draws ever closer, conscious breathing needs to be front and center. Even low-key excitement can shorten and abate the breath; when the mind gets hold of anticipation, the body reads “fight or flight.” In those moments, one must remind oneself to regard complete, calming breaths as a decision. 

As I marveled this morning about how still and even-keeled I felt inside, I suddenly realized that part of the stillness was the very little movement through my belly, ribs, and chest. When I scanned a bit further, I found that my breaths were far from full and far from deep.

Ironically, when I met with the surgical nurse yesterday as part of pre-surgery protocol, she mentioned the importance of breath in pain management. I assured her that breath work is familiar to me and part of my daily practice. So, when I discovered this morning that my breath had taken a back seat to thoughts of Surgery Day, I inwardly chuckled and lightly chided myself for the lack of my supposed discipline.

So, my light movement practice this morning gave way to a focus on pranayama. One of the simplest, most effective combinations I enjoy is the following:

Begin with chest openers: spinal flexes, arm swings (criss-cross in front), arm circles, and modified back bend or Camel Pose.

Sitting, place on palm on the belly just beneath the navel, with the other hand resting on top. Inhale into the cradle of the palms for a count of 4; exhale for 4 (breathing through the nose).

Repeat 4 times.

Continuing to breathe through the nose, increase both counts to 6; repeat 6 times.

Now, release the hands to the knees, left palm up, right palm down: Breathe in through the nose for 6; pause for 2; exhale long and steady through rounded lips for 8. Repeat 8 times. (The hand position and breath change represent taking in and letting go; this is a particularly beneficial breath when coping with anxiety or distracting thoughts.)

Close with a trio of breaths that alternate nostrils. Using the right thumb to close the right nostril, place the left palm on the knee, palm up, index finger and thumb touching. Breathe in and out through the left nostril, very slowly, for 3 rounds (no count). Change hands—left thumb closes left nostril; right hand lies palm up with Gyan Mudra on right knee—and repeat through the right nostril.

Then, using the right thumb to operate the right nostril, right ring finger to open and close the left, place the left hand on the knee, palm down, no mudra. Close the right nostril to breathe in through the left; close the left to breathe out through the right; then in through the right, out through the left. Repeat the entire round 5 times.

Finally, sit quietly, left hand resting in the palm of the right, with the hands in the lap. Touch the thumb tips together, send your closed-eye gaze up to the Third Eye, and breathe in and out through the nose. Stay here for as long as you like, allowing the body and mind to integrate the calming benefits of the pranayama.

’Til tomorrow…

How to Hang On–Day 27: Stay Cool

Today was the final round of appointments before Friday’s surgery.

Yesterday, my low back decided to join the party: spasm deluxe.

I was concerned about driving, about walking, about standing, about waiting—would my back, hips, and legs keep me upright as I moved through this final, necessarily busy day?

For that has been my primary goal: walk into the surgical center upright, of my own accord (with the help of canes). To be so close, yet so far… that was the feeling with which I awoke today.

And yet: I managed. One foot in front of the other; one wobbly cane maneuver, then the next; one smile for the surgical nurse; and then another for the COVID test-taker. Each move along this baffling game board toward surgery demands, overall, one thing: Stay cool.

By “cool,” I mean centered–in mind, body, spirit: When body balks, move to mind; when mind meanders, shift to spirit. And when at all possible, engage all three—ultimate coolness.

Also, however, I am acutely cognizant that Cool abides vulnerability: I am learning how to accommodate that uncomfortable, unwanted state, all while staying connected to Cool.

’Til tomorrow…

Silent Sundays: Correction–In More Ways Than One (Or: How to Hang On–Day 26)

Back on Day 20 of the “How to Hang On” series, I made an error in counting–or so I thought. Consequently, there are two entries for Day 20, which means that every day after that is behind by one. Thus, today is Day 26 (although previous posts would suggest that it is Day 25). With that correction comes the topic of this Silent Sunday’s practice. When physical abilities become limited, one has to modify, i.e., correct for circumstance.

Yesterday, a friend was asking about cautionary protocols after surgery and during rehab. She ventured: “… And you won’t be able to do yoga.”

This is a common misconception: Many Western yogis view active vinyasa, “hot yoga,” or advanced Iyengar postures as the crux of yoga. As a former teacher and student of ashtanga (aka the original “power yoga”), I , too, was of that mind for several years. Because I was an active, athletic person overall, the quick pace and heat of ashtanga appealed to my energetic tendencies.

During this time, however, I also began studying Kundalini yoga. The mental and spiritual insight that I gleaned from the tradition was enlightening: Ever since, no matter my physical ability or mental state, kundalini has been a part of my practice. About 5 years ago, it became the core; when hip arthritis struck, it became my savior.

So, in answer to my friend, I was able to say that I never stopped practicing “yoga”: I, did, however “correct for” my increasing physical limitations. And, in so doing, I have realized that kundalini will continue to anchor my post-surgical rehab. Spinal exercises, pranayama, and upper body kriyas provide an energizing, clearing, and stabilizing foundation for my body, mind, and overall attitude. When pain subsides enough to allow, I add in movements to strengthen and soothe the lower body, i.e, the Lower Triangle of chakras.

With all of that in mind, today’s Silent Sunday offering is a sample of what I do and have done every day for the past couple of years: Even as my hips deteriorated to bone-on-bone status, I was–and continue to be–able to feed the following energetic nutrition to my body and spirit. This is the most recent iteration of the practice, which means that most people with upper-body mobility and the ability to sit and/or kneel can partake of the routine.

Always, every day, first thing in the morning–sometimes before donning clothes–I awaken my spine. Depending on what my body tells me, I begin on my back or kneeling: On the back, knees are bent, feet hip with apart; I then rock my pelvis forward and back, slowly and gently. Simultaneously, I consciously engage with the breath: inhale to tip the pelvis forward, exhale to retract it back toward me. Allow 1-2 minutes of this focused, warming move.

(If on all fours, similarly flex and extend the lower spine only, attempting to isolate the pelvis: inhale to lightly extend the lumbar spine; exhale to softly round.)

Then, I engage the full spine. On my back, I inhale to tip the pelvis forward; then, I exhale to begin rolling it up and away from the floor, incrementally continuing up the entire spine until I am in a modified Bridge. Then, inhale to lift the arms up and overhead to the floor; exhale to bring them back down, followed by the articulated roll-down through the spine–all on the same exhale. Repeat about 10 times.

(If on all fours, this would become a full Cat/Cow, flexing and extending through the entire spine. After about a minute, this would be followed by “Bird Dog”: extend the left arm straight ahead from the shoulder, while extending and lifting the right leg straight back from the hip. Take a full inhale and exhale, lower, and switch sides: Repeat 3-5 times on each side.)

At this point, I come to a seated posture. Typically these days (as crossed-leg pose is no longer comfortably accessible to me), I begin with legs extended straight out in front: When I need to, which is at about the 3-5 minute mark, I come into Rock Pose (or Hero Pose); I bolster by sitting on a block, feet pulled back to rest outside of my hips, tops of the feet on the ground.

Here begins another round of spinal flexes. At this point, having warmed up, the spine can begin to move more quickly and fluidly. Use this opportunity to ramp up the flow of blood and cerebrospinal fluid, both of which foster mental clarity. Inhale to open the front body with a deep arch through the entire spine; exhale to round and open the back body. Continue for 3-5 minutes.

Next, Sufi Grinds: Roll the entire torso to the right, making sure that the movement includes the pelvis. Inhale to press the spine and pelvis forward, then circle to the right; exhale as you round, tipping the pelvis back, and continuing the clockwise circle into the left side of the circle. Continue in this direction for 1-3 minutes, breathing deeply, and moving seamlessly; then, switch to roll counter-clockwise for another 1-3 minutes.

Now, I begin to engage the arms: Often, I have done so during spinal flexes; for the purpose of today’s practice, however, focus on each piece individually. Begin by clearing the magnetic field around you: Inhale to shoot the right arm straight up, fingers pressed together, palm up, facing left; exhale to quickly withdraw the elbow down to the side. Repeat quickly with the left arm: inhale up, exhale down. Continue rapidly, with powerful nose breath, for 1 minute.

Without a break, alternate the arms up and out to the sides at a 60-degree angle; both palms face inward, toward each other. Same speed, same breath: Continue for 1 minute.

Again, continue immediately: alternate arms up and out in front of you at 60 degrees. This time, the palms face downward. Move vigorously for 1 more minute.

From here, slowly slide out of your seated posture, and come onto the belly. With legs straight or bent at the knees, prop up onto the forearms. Breathe here in Spinx Pose, in through the nose, out through the mouth for 1 minute. Eyes may be closed, focused on the Third Eye.

Then, place the hands under the shoulders, but not onto the floor: Your upper body strength supports the lift. Inhale through the nose, then exhale to rock to the right, rolling the left shoulder and chest further away from the floor. Inhale back through center, hands and upper body remaining off the floor; exhale to tip to the left, rolling the right should and chest open and away from the floor. Continue back and forth for 1 minute.

Now, help yourself onto your back. Extend both legs straight up and together: Inhale through the nose to lower them both a few inches; quickly exhale through the nose to retract them back to 90 degrees. The approximate count is 3 to lower, 1 quick beat to lift. Repeat 10-20 times.

Next, life the upper body and support yourself on the forearms; elbows are under or slightly ahead of the shoulders. Stay lifted and open through the chest, shoulders rolled back: Extend the legs out at 60 degrees, and begin Breath of Fire. Continue for 1 minute; bend the knees slightly to modify; alternatively, do one leg at a time, each for about 30-45 seconds.

You may remain supported by your forearms, or, if feeling strong, extend the arms out along the floor while keeping the upper-body lift. In this position, “bicycle” the legs out at an angle of 30-45 degrees. Continue the full-leg, alternating peddling action for 1 minute: Then, reverse (as if cycling backward) for another minute.

Finally, lower onto the back. If your hips and low back allow, bring the knees in toward you. Inhale, then exhale to bring the legs down to the left; inhale up to center, exhale to the right. Alternate for 5-10 rounds, then lengthen the legs out (perhaps with a bolster under the knees), and settle into Svasana for 5-10 minutes.

Happy Sunday…

How to Hang On–Day 24: Massage (Not What You May Think)

As a massage therapist, I am deeply aware of and committed to the value of most modalities of bodywork: muscular, circulatory, psychological, and overall vitality benefits. When it comes to massage, when—if ever—can it be too much?

Clearly, a physical massage takes place on a body that won’t be damaged by tissue or internal stimulation. There are numerous contraindications to various styles of massage; an educated, observant massage therapist knows and abides by these boundaries.

The “massage” to which I refer today, however, is not of a physical kind. It is one that I had never heard mentioned before this morning, when a sensitive, intelligent friend informed me of its existence. In response to my umpteenth thanks for her help, she took a breath, and ever-so-kindly said:

“A rabbi once told me: ‘Don’t massage an apology.’” She went on to explain that overdoing a “sorry” takes away its integrity, its depth, its truth. She used this rabbinical admonition to gently let me know that I did not have to “massage” my gratitude.

What a wondrous gift this was! And what a wondrous rabbi, wondrous friend, and wondrous circumstance: Without arthritis, without looming surgery, without the need for help, I would never have become acquainted with such wonders.

Wonders=Blessings

’Til tomorrow…

How to Hang On–Day 22: Wondering…

In Pandemic Bubble Life—lockdown, quarantine, self-isolation—the past seems illusory, the future is uncertain, and the present exists in a vacuum.

Is that really any different than Life eternal, pandemic or not?

I ponder this, because life when injured or ill exudes a similar quality: one of illusion, foggy memory, and hope for a future that may only mean more illusion and diffusion.

To be clear, these thoughts bear no sense of despair: Rather, they seek only to manage expectation and to nurture the spiritual dimension of existence. As bleak as it may sound, expectation inherently invites disappointment; attention to the spirit, however, fosters possibility and hope.

With that in mind, I acknowledge the way that I used to live, pre-arthritis, pre-near-debilitation. That recognition affords me the opportunity to consider the ways in which I  might change, the ways that I choose not to, and the ways over which I have no control.

Today, 8 days pre-surgery, I wonder about where I have been, where I will be, and if wondering makes any real difference. How does one submit to the unfolding of Life? For me, that answer has always  been to have Faith—in God, in the Universe, and in that which can never be known… until it is.

’Til tomorrow…

How to Hang On–Day 21: HALT

Today’s title refers to an acronym well-known to recovering addicts. When “Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired,” those in recovery are in the most danger of giving in to the urge to feed their disease. I have come to regard “HALT” as a useful tool in any circumstance wherein a negative response or impulsive reaction wanders too close to manifestation.

One of the surprising aspects of  “hanging on” pre-surgery has been the sheer number of appointments leading up to the day. It strikes me as absurdly ironic that just when the body can barely take another step, more is asked of it: Any errand or appointment requires (in my living situation) dealing with three flights of stairs; a couple-hundred-feet walk to the car; maneuvering into the car; mobilizing across a parking lot, into a building, standing/waiting, and then doing it all in reverse.

I steeled myself for just such an endeavor today. Upon arriving home, I felt the kind of pain that has come to signal a serious need to end the day, set myself up for rest, and become still. Instead, I entered my apartment to a ringing phone: On the other end was a nurse from the surgery center; she informed me that “R” would be in touch to set up a “meet and greet”—another appointment.

I uttered those words in sheer disbelief: “Another appointment?” I could feel the tears stirring, and my anger wondering if it should enter the fray. To her credit, the nurse entirely empathized, echoing my bewilderment that at this time, more activity was demanded. I kept quiet, ended the call, and thought of HALT.

Hungry? Not much of an appetite these days. Angry? Frustrated, for sure. Lonely? Nope. Tired? Times 10.

So, I realized that my reaction to the addition of another appointment (which, to me in these pre-surgery days translates as additional pain) was a direct consequence of at least half-a-HALT.

With that acknowledgement, I could remind myself that despite the feeling of exhaustion, I was nonetheless still on the road, moving in the right direction. Regardless of more appointments, and thus more pain and fatigue, surgery gets closer each and every day. And with that, I can levy against the flood of negativity, consider my place on the HALT spectrum, and resume deep and full gratitude for what lies ahead.

’Til tomorrow…

How to Hang On: Day 20–Head and Heart

No matter who you are, finding a balance of head and heart is a lifelong endeavor. I have had to learn how to allow my very capable head to be an equal partner; from a young age, my passionate, sensitive heart has tried to rule the roost. In younger years, that meant that my emotions could far too easily rum amok; as a counter-balance, I misguidedly tried to build a fortress around my heart.

In the past decade or so, I have become more aware of when one teammate tries to lord it over the other; consequently, I have become more adept at fending off mutiny of one or the other. Over the course of the past year, I somehow have floated above them both, which has afforded me an oddly objective view of both head and heart. 

It as if I have become a parent to two children who love each other furiously, but are just as prone to stifle the other when in need of attention. As their parent, my responsibility is to love them both fully, yet acknowledge that there may be times when one needs more attention or guidance. In doing so, they both learn that there is an ebb and flow to leading, following, and walking hand in hand.

Today I met with the surgeon who will perform my hip replacement next week (10 days, to be exact). He has presented himself in both of our meetings as a Head. I have, on both occasions, hoped for more heart; today, however, I was prepared for the Head, and brought mine to make his acquaintance.

And I was pleased to discover that I felt no less strong: My heart stayed still, behaved (save for a brief moment of near-teariness in the presence of Dr. Head), and waited patiently for the meeting to end. My head spoke on behalf of all of us; I was pleased with its performance.

When trying to Hang On, most days—in my experience—follow the heart’s lead. Yet it is helpful to remember that the head is there, too, just waiting for a chance to save the day. 

’Til tomorrow…

Silent Sundays: Reclaim Clean (Or: How to Hang On–Day 19)

Although it is a bit early to dedicate the following practice to Spring Cleaning, a solid cleansing—inside and out—reinvigorates morale and motivation at any time. And if one does not feel well, mentally or physically, the energy to partake in a clean-up may be lacking. Today’s routine begins with tending to the external body and environment, which then likely will provide the desire to attend to the inner environment. 

My entry into the practice began with washing my hair. It can be far too easy to let simple grooming fall by the wayside when socialization has lessened, and pain or illness has increased. One of the bars I—and many, I imagine—set for myself at the onset of 2020’s pandemic and self-isolation order was to maintain health and hygiene routines: My sartorial choices may have suffered somewhat, but clean clothes have remained a must.

So, feeling less than creatively vital this morning, I intuited the need to clear my head, literally and metaphorically. Without doffing my clothes, I stood over the kitchen sink and gave my hair a thorough shampoo and conditioning. Immediately, I felt revived and compelled to address other small cleaning tasks.

A quick hand-vacuum of the bathroom rug, followed by a hand-sponged floor cleaning, felt like a significant accomplishment. Then, a face wash with my favorite rosewater, and a facial massage with jojoba oil helped me “put my best face forward.” At that point, I felt not only ready, but eager to create a movement practice to eliminate physical and emotional stagnancy.

To begin, sit in crossed-leg posture, or with your legs stretched straight on the floor in front of you. Extend the left arm to the side at shoulder level, palm up: The hand forms a mudra for pain relief—index and middle fingers together, ring and pinky together, with the pairs separated, forming a V. The right hand rests in the lap, palm up, in Gyan Mudra: index finger entirely curled into and held down by the thumb, other fingers together, yet relaxed.

Now, begin a spinal flex, rounding and arching while maintaining the left arm at shoulder height. As you inhale through the nose, arch, open the chest, and look up, the palm turns up and back slightly, rolling open through the shoulder joint. Exhale slowly and deeply through rounded lips: Round the spine, drop the head, and rotate the shoulder forward, rolling the palm down and slightly backward. Inhale through the nose, open and arch; exhale through the mouth, turn inward and round. Continue for 1 minute. Then, switch hand and arm positions, right arm out with the V mudra, left hand in lap with Gyan Mudra, palm up. Arch and round with the shoulder rotation and palm flip for another minute.

Next, place both hands on the knees, using the hold to empower a full spinal flex. This time, inhale and exhale through the nose; move as quickly and fluidly as possible to stimulate spinal energy, thus clearing and enlivening the central nervous system. Continue for 1-3 minutes.

Then, come onto your back. Bring the knees in toward you, and begin to roll up the spine, as if preparing to enter Shoulder Stand: However, instead of extending the legs up and placing the hands on the low back, maintain your compact shape; rest the bent legs into the palms, which support at the top of the thighs. Your upper arms and shoulders form a tripod on which the package of your body rests: It is as if you have created an inverted Baby Pose. Breathe here, steady and strong, for 1 minute.

Remaining in the inversion, extend the legs straight back over your head. Hold the ankles (or shins); keep the lower legs still as you vigorously shake the thighs. Allow the flesh and muscle to thoroughly release. Continue for 30-60 seconds. 

Now, roll down onto your back, and keep moving, raising the upper body off of the floor; use the forearms to support the torso, but stay lifted and open through the chest. With the upper body strong and supported, extend both legs up to 60 degrees off the floor. In this modified Navasana (Boat Pose), begin Breath of Fire through the nose. Continue for a full 3 minutes: If you need to do one leg at a time, or need to pause and reset, do so; then resume and fulfill the 3 minutes.

Then, lie again on your back, knees bent, feet hip width apart. Roll up through the spine into a modified Back Bend (Bridge); interlace the hands under the body, lengthening through the arms. Wriggle your shoulders as far underneath the upper body as possible, enhancing the opening of the chest and Heart Chakra. Breathe into this pose, long and slow through the nose, for 1 minute.

Finally, come onto your back, both knees bent in toward your body. Inhale: Exhale and drop both knees to the right; inhale back up to center; exhale to the left. Arms rest by the sides, helping to stabilize the twisting movement. Continue for 1 minute.

To complete the twist and the practice, continue the same pattern as above. Now, however, add a head turn and mantra: As the knees drop to the right, turn the head to the left, chanting (aloud or silently): “Sat Nam.” inhale the knees back up to center, and as you then lower them to the left, turn the head to the right, chanting: “Wahe [wah-hey] Guru.”  Continue for 1 minute.

This final inner massage and soothing mantra will shed any remaining mental or physical dis-ease; ushered forth will be a state of fresh, clear calm. When you are ready, release the legs onto the floor, rest the arms with palms up, and enter Svasana. Remain in your deeply cleaned vessel of rest for as long as you like.

Happy Sunday…