Silent Sundays: Prepare to Meditate, Part Two–The Way In

As alluded to in yesterday’s piece, the prospect of meditation may be daunting to some. Whether one’s hesitancy is rooted in the physical (“I can’t sit still”); mental (“I have too much on my mind”); or circumstantial realm (“I don’t have the time”), the following routine will assuage doubts, offer fundamental physical and mental techniques, and move seamlessly into a short meditation. 

Special note: I have encountered mis- or uninformed folks who wonder if meditation contradicts or threatens their religious practices. First, “meditation” is not one, abiding practice: Like yoga, there are many styles and aims. Each can serve as a complementary adjunct to other religious or spiritual practices. 

I have come to believe that this misunderstanding surrounding meditation stems from a confusion between prayer and meditation. Prayer assumes a belief in God or gods; meditation need not. (To be clear, my personal practice of meditation is rooted in my sense of God and the Universe; other approaches, however, may be aimed at improving productivity, instilling calm, or even reducing pain.) One way to explain the difference may be to suggest that prayer is an outwardly directed supplication to the divine; meditation is the inward-moving reception of whatever energy one intends to arouse.

Thus, the following routine will be beneficial for all. And it need not be used only in conjunction with meditation; any one or combination of the components will provide an efficient warm-up for activity, and help to establish clarity and focus.

Begin standing. This is the first of four spine-mobilization moves: It may be viewed as the start of a sequence, or, as with any of the others, may be done as a stand-alone exercise. From standing, bend the knees slightly, keeping them in line with the heels; bend forward to place the hands where they naturally fall on the thighs. Inhale to extend (arch) the spine as you draw the shoulders back to open the chest; exhale to flex (round) the spine. Move at a pace that feels comfortable, and that stimulates energy. Allow the neck and head to move as they naturally will upon flexion and extension of the spine. Continue for 30-60 seconds.

Next, come to the floor on all fours. Here, begin traditional Cat/Cow spinal movement: Inhale to arch; exhale to round. Breathe deeply, stay relaxed through the mouth and jaw, and extend/flex for 1 minute.

The third option for spinal work is to lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat and hip-width apart. This spinal activity requires deep attention to the breath and physical movement; it is a significant step toward uniting the two. The synergy of connecting breath to spinal articulation signals an aspect of the upcoming meditation. 

In your supine position, arms by the sides, inhale to tip the tail forward and down; this pelvic tilt is the “home base” of the following sequence. Exhale to bring the tail and pelvis in and up; you will rise to the top, rear rim of the pelvis. Inhale to roll the pelvis back down and directly into the “home base” forward tilt; exhale to roll up incrementally through the lower spine, to the lowest ribs. Inhale to roll down and into the forward pelvic tilt; exhale to roll up, sensing each vertebra lifting off the floor, to just below armpit-level. Inhale down, vertebra by vertebra, into “home base;” exhale all the way up to the tops of the shoulder blades, and stay.

Inhale to lift the arms up and over to rest on the floor over your head. Exhale to roll down, piece by piece; with the arms stretched long overhead, the lowering spine will created an intense stretch through the axilla (armpit). This may be astonishingly stiff for some, so move slowly and patiently; with repetition, the area will ease.

Repeat the entire sequence 4 more times, for a total of 5.

Now, with the body at rest and the knees still bent, feet on the floor, let the knees drop toward the left; move as if they are dominoes or windshield wipers—one leads, the other follows. Inhale back to center; exhale to the right. “Windshield Wipe” the legs back and forth up to 20 times; this will help release tension in the hips and lower back.

When centered again, draw the knees in toward you, just enough to hold behind the thighs. Use your grip to raise the head and shoulders off the ground; you will be in a little boat shape. Now, “rock the boat”: Inhale to rock yourself back, keeping the head up; exhale to rock forward toward the buttocks. Use momentum, and be aware of the activated abdominal muscles: This move provides a bit of a massage to the muscles along the spine, as it subtly strengthens the front body (a necessary ingredient for any sitting practice). Rock back and forth with corresponding breath 10-20 times.

After you have rocked yourself up to a seated position, extend the legs straight forward. Here is the final version of spinal warm-ups. Bring the hands to the shoulders, fingers in front, thumbs behind; the elbows are lifted, so that the upper arms are parallel to the floor. As you inhale, tip the pelvis forward, and draw the elbows behind as if to touch; the entire front body will open in this spinal extension. Simultaneously, bend the knees and flex the feet (bring the toes toward you), with the heels remaining on the ground.

As you exhale, rock the pelvis back, bring the elbows forward to touch each other, and let the head hang; the spine is now deeply rounded into flexion. Simultaneously, lengthen through the knees and extend (point) the feet. 

Continue this spinal flexion and extension, with corresponding “leg pumps” and breath, for 1 minute.

Now you are ready to sit. As always, support yourself in any way that contributes to an upright, aligned spine and relaxed hips and shoulders. A chair or mediation bench are other options. Here begins the next phase of moving into meditation: complete, steady breathing and mental focus. To begin, close your eyes. With your inner eye, guide the breath through the entire path of the spine you have just worked to awaken: Inhale at the Root, or perineum; draw the breath up the entire front cross-section of the spine, through the lumbar, thoracic, and cervical curves, all the way to the bridge of the nose. Exhale, and reverse the trajectory, traveling with the mind’s eye down the rear cross-section of the spine. Inhale up the front of the channel; exhale down the back. Continue for about a minute.

Next, allow this breath pathway to move on “automatic pilot.” Bring your visual focus to the Third Eye: Eyes are closed, and gazing up and in to the spot between the brows. You also will add sound to the breath, which creates an auditory focal point. Inhale deeply through the nose, long and steady, and exhale through rounded lips—“hooo”—until all the breath is gone. Repeat this inhale and exhale with Third Eye and sound focus 5-10 times.

The final aspect of focus is touch. With the hands on the knees, palms up, you will touch first the left index fingertip to thumb tip; then the middle tip to thumb; then the ring finger; and then the pinky  to thumb tip. (The right hand is quiet.) This move establishes a 4-count; repeat it to make 8. This is your inhale.

To exhale, shift your “counter” to the right hand: touch index, middle, ring, and pinky, then repeat to reach the 8-count. Work with your breath to help it effortlessly meld with the 8-count: Inhale for 8, counting with the left hand; exhale for 8, using the right-hand counter. Repeat 3-4 times.

Finally, with your preparations completed, move into a short meditation. The suggested mudra recalls the idea that meditation is an act of receiving; you have created an clear, open vessel into which energy may flow. Bring both hands in front of the Heart Center, just an inch or two away from the chest. Touch the edges of the pinkies together; connect the base of the palms; and bring the edges of the thumbs together. With this Lotus Mudra “cup,” simply sit and breathe, closed eyes gazing to the Third Eye. Inhale to draw divine or universal energy into the mudra; exhale to imbue it within your entire being. Continue for as long as you like.

Happy Sunday…

Homestead Series–Part Two: Creativity and Its Expression (With a Nod to Dementia)

My mother, aka Old Mom: whole-hearted listener, warm hugger, cookie lover, art appreciator, helper of all helpers, poet.

My mother with dementia, aka New Mom: curious listener, warm hugger, cookie monster, mystified observer, determined participant, wordless warrior.

Two days ago, my mother with dementia became reacquainted with the original—New Mom met Old Mom.

Lest you wonder if I was adopted or have a step-mother, allow me to clarify: The two mothers I describe are the same woman—one body, one heart, one mind, one soul, one poet, one intrepid doer of Life. As are many whose loved one has for whatever reason shifted in their cognitive abilities and psychological states, I am bewildered by the changes in my mother: At this point in her nearly 10 years of waning, altered mental capacity, I think of this woman as New Mom. 

Old Mom was younger; New Mom is old. 

Old Mom could spar or speak without a beat; New Mom shrilly rants or goes silent, watching an invisible ticker tape of vocabulary rise up before her inner eye, then tangle, fade, and disappear.

Old Mom wrote poetry; New Mom reads her old poetry.

Which is what she did the other day.

During our daily phone call, she asked, “Do you have a minute?” She then proceeded to explain that she had written a book: Did I know that? When I assured her that yes, I knew all about the letters and memories of her father that she had compiled nearly 30 years ago, she seemed relieved, albeit somewhat surprised that I knew such a thing about her. She does not always know that this person with whom she speaks on the phone each morning is one of her two daughters. 

I do not mind. I used to, but that was when I thought Old Mom could or would rally and return. That was before New Mom stole my heart, and I became a more-than-willing accomplice to the theft.

And yesterday, when she was eager to share her writings with me, I listened with joy, with soft sadness, and with my head and heart silently thanking God as Mom spoke. I could hear the pride and pleasure in her voice as she read the deeply considered and impeccably chosen words that she had written. That she realized that they had come from her; that they sparked a connection between her remembered past and misty present; that she could discuss without frustration her Old Brain and New Brain… these wonders fed both of us with an abundance of peace and gratitude.

Ironically, the New Mom who no longer can hold a thought or find a word is the Mom who produces the greatest insight into what it means to think, to feel, and to create. New Mom’s “deficits” give Old Mom’s advantages a run for their money: With the loss of vocabulary and short-term memory comes the intriguingly pointed question, “What happens to Creativity when dementia enters the arena?”

That the ability to dream, to connect, and to usher in new modes of Creativity does not die with dementia is ferociously disarming: If one can not decide to create—motivate to create—how, then, does one engage creative energy?

And that is where my own tune changes: Is To Create the same as Being Creative? Does Creation exist without Expression?

If a tree falls in the forest…

In the framework of Old Mom/New Mom, organized mind versus dementia, Creativity oddly leaps to the fore. New Mom’s creativity now manifests as imaginary friends and visitors; as vivid observances of color and shape; and of acute experience of emotion. In some ways, New Mom’s creative essence shines brighter—by megawatts—than Old Mom’s consciously arranged and edited creative productions. 

Creativity can be unconscious; To Create is not. One may be creative without words or forethought or analysis; to become Creation, though, requires a facilitator—Expression.

Creativity exists without thought, and therefore without our bidding. What one often regards as Creativity is, instead, Expression. Creativity thrives despite our conscious awareness of its activity; it becomes Creation when we attach our intention to its release.

For the purposes of this series of practices, then, Creativity must be linked to Expression, actively and consciously. In sum, the Second Chakra must align with the Fifth: Stoke the generative fires, and usher them through the expressive stacks.

The first phase of the practice energizes and coordinates the partnership of the Second and Fifth chakras. The sequence begins on your back, knees bent, feet flat and hip-width apart. Allow the arms to rest on the ground naturally. As you inhale, tip the pelvis forward, creating a slight arch in the lower spine. Simultaneously, let the chin move gently down toward the chest. Upon exhale, roll the pelvis toward you (thereby slightly rounding the low back), as you let the head tip back, opening the front of the neck. 

These movements require focus, as the tucked chin with inhale and pelvic tip forward initially may seem counter-intuitive (as may the curled tail and open throat upon exhale). Stick with it, repeating the inhale/exhale combinations 12 times.

Next, interlace the fingers behind the neck; bring the elbows as close to the floor as possible. Inhale deeply through the nose; exhale powerfully through the mouth, creating a sounded expulsion of air. As you exhale and cleanse the throat, pull the low belly in strongly. Repeat 12 times.

Now, extend both legs into the air, arms resting back down by the sides. Inhale through the nose; exhale to push the pointed feet straight up, lifting the hips slightly. This move thoroughly engages the low-belly muscles: Try not to let the legs swing toward you as the hips push up; rather, push the toes up, as if to pierce the air straight above. Repeat 12 times.

Repeat the entire 3-part sequence (each move with 12 repetitions) 2 more times, for a total of 3.

Then, help yourself into any comfortable seated position. Place both hands on the low belly, one atop the other: Let the thumb of the bottom hand rest in (or on) the navel. With your mind’s eye, trace the following line of the breath. As you inhale fully through the nose, imagine energy moving from the belly button downward into the palms on the belly; exhale slowly through the nose, and guide the breath down between the legs, to the perineum, and back up into the lower spine, behind the navel. 

Continue the long, steady exhale as the breath splits: Send it around to the left and right waists, and allow it to circle all the way back to the initial point of the navel. Inhale to begin again, drawing the breath into the Dan Tien (where the hands rest); exhale calmly and steadily to push this breath through its long journey back to start. Breathe this way 8 times.

Special note: This visualization and breath meditation also soothes moderate lower-back ache. 

Next, place the thumb and index finger of the right hand on the right and left sides of the throat, respectively. With a firm, slow motion, stroke down from the jaw to the collar bone. As the right hand reaches the collar bone, bring the left hand up to continue the downward stroke (left index finger on right side of throat; left thumb on left side). Move the hands in a seamless round, in order to create a continual stimulation of the Throat Chakra.

Finally, rest both hands in the lap, palms up, one nested inside the other, thumb tips touching. As you inhale deeply through the nose, allow the jaw to fall open; simultaneously visualize the breath coming in and down to the Second Chakra. The exhale becomes the mantra, “Aum.”

Special note: Often, this is written as “Om”: However, the threes letter of Aum convey the desired 3-part sounding—Ah/Oh/Mm.

As you exhale, chant, “Aum,” slowly dissecting the mantra into 3 parts. By the end of the third sound (“mm”), the mouth will be gently closed. Inhale to gently drop the jaw and send the breath into the Creative energy center of the Second Chakra; exhale to chant slowly and steadily, feeling the vibration through the expressive Throat Chakra as the mouth closes softly. Continue for 3 minutes. If you like, settle into Svasana for a few minutes of rest and integration of energy.

Next Time: Homestead—Part 3: Solar-Powered and Heart-Centered

Silent Sundays: Pockets of Change

As readers of Everything Elsa know, I have been writing frequently about arthritis: its trajectory, ramifications, and eventual surgical journey. From how to contend with pain, emotional depletion, and forced change of lifestyle, recent writings have given me and you an opportunity to confront challenge in ways that boost spirit and physical vitality. Now, with the second hip replacement performed two days ago, I am approaching this recovery slightly differently.

Almost from the moment of diagnosis of osteoarthritis in both hips, I was intrigued by the potentially esoteric underpinnings of the ailment. In somatic and yogic circles, hips are said to be the storehouse of old pain: emotional, physical, and psycho-spiritual. I wondered if the wearing away of cartilage in the joints could possibly be a boon: Perhaps this would be an opportunity to shed all remnants of past struggle and strife; perhaps the erosion of tissue and the resultant bone-to-bone situation meant I could create a new type of vessel in my hips.

Now, as I experience the clear distinctions of sensation between right and left side recovery, I begin to add another layer to this idea of establishing a clean start in the hips. Because the right side of the body is said to be “masculine,” and the left to be “feminine,” I am not entirely surprised by the remarkably different quality of discomfort in the recovering hips. 

The first replacement was on the right: The surgery itself was rougher, more damaging; the subsequent recovery seemed “loud” within my body. My energy, too, took on an “outgoing,” determined tenor. The left side, currently entering its healing time, feels initially more rickety and uncertain: It wants a tender, slower care. And psycho-energetically, I find myself more introverted and needing to retreat. If “masculine” connotes tough and forceful, and “feminine” aligns with softness and gentleness, then my hips are doing a superb job of demonstrating the right/left side qualities.

Special note: As mentioned in an earlier post, any reference here to masculine or feminine characteristics are aligned with ancient and nature-based thought. As feminine corresponds with yin in Traditional Chinese Medicine—i.e., cool, receptive, soft, dark—masculine corresponds with the heat and outward movement of yang energy. By no means are the words or connotations meant to subsume or elevate the traits of men and women. Simply, they are guides within a framework that gives context to this discussion.

With these ideas in mind, I am expanding my recent practices of physical cleansing and karma-clearing to allow input of fresh, consciously conjured energy. In a sense, this concept corresponds nicely with the need to balance prana and apana, the energies of taking in and elimination, respectively. Just as the body (in its optimal state) harmonizes intake with output, one can draw in fresh perspectives and values, and shed old habits and emotions.

The main difference between the physical body’s innate drive for balance between what comes in and what goes out, and one’s decision to discharge the past to make way for a different state moving forward, is just that: The body behaves without conscious thought; our choices necessitate contemplation and discernment.

In the case of addressing the hips, this means that one may think about lifelong patterns of thought and behavior: What habitual reactions, what snap judgements, what negative slants have infiltrated your life? Then, when contemplating the idea that these can be ejected and replaced, what would be the qualities you would choose to take in? Further, in my case, I have begun to recognize when negativity is taking hold; I have made a firm pact with myself that these thoughts or energies will not be allowed to settle in to my fledgling hips.

An image comes to mind: that of pants pocket (which happen often to lie on the hips). I think of pockets that seem empty or unencumbered: However, at their base lie tiny bits of grit or lint. As in the hips, these pockets may remain in this subtly sullied state without our awareness. And as with the hips, their clearing requires turning them inside out for a fresh start.

On this Silent Sunday, I suggest an emptying and refilling of those “pockets.” To do so, you will conduct a full exploration of your physical and mental state of being. The following visualization and meditation will help to create an inner environment conducive to restructuring your being, should you find that desirable or necessary.

To begin, lie down on your back, as if in Svasana. (Feel free to do this practice in bed.) First, bring your attention to the physical body: Sense where you are stiff, perhaps riding higher on one side than the other, or possibly have weakness. With regard to the hips, the pelvis may be tilted, or you may find it challenging to lie flat with both legs straight. Or, if your imbalance resides in the upper body, one shoulder may feel more in contact with the floor, or one side may feel heavier. Take this closed-eye time to travel through your entire physical being, giving yourself as much time as you like.

Then, wherever you feel drawn, focus your inner eye and awareness to that spot or area. Select a cleansing color, texture, print, or image that represents “clean and clear” to you: Imbue each inhale from this point on with that quality. Breathe in deeply, guiding the breath to your area of concentration: Exhale through gently, slightly pursed lips. Breathe out as if you are blowing dandelion fuzz off of your hand, or across a table: softly, sweetly, completely. Continue for at least 3 minutes, and then as long as you like.

When you feel that you have cleared space, summon the qualities—mental, physical, spiritual—that you wish to undergird your motive for change. At this point, add a mudra to the mix: Adhomukha Mudra is one of transformation and self-healing: In conjunction with the self-reflection, physical visualization, and pranayama, the mudra channels your intention in the most beneficial and powerful way.

As you lie, with your sensations and conscious awareness flowing freely, bring the hands to hover a few inches above the Solar Plexus area, just beneath the Heart Center. Palms are down (facing the torso), and the backs of the fingertips and first knuckles rest against each other. Reach the thumb tips to touch each other. Now, with the mudra in place, use the inhale to draw in the state of mind, heart, and body that you wish to instill: You may take it in through the Third Eye, through the body region on which you have been focused, or perhaps you intuitively sense a new direction or spot for the breath to treat. Regardless, breathe in fully and deeply through the nose; exhale through the nose to settle and further integrate your aims. Continue for at least 5 minutes, and then as long as feels right.

Happy Sunday…