Tag Archives: meditation

Carry your mindfulness with you: digital aids to practice

Photo: a relaxed hand rests on a knee during meditation
Meditation does not always have take place cross-legged in a quiet place.

I am a guy who has woven technology and mindfulness practices together in my life for the past decade. The Web and podcasts have opened the door to scores of dharma talks and guided meditations from some of the greatest teachers in the world: Tara Brach happens to be my favorite. I’ve been intrigued by the prospects of shrinking mindfulness to my smartphone and have added a few apps, but have never been completely satisfied. Carolyn Gregoire has pulled together a nice collections of phone apps and web services to augment your personal practice or take it in a new direction, and some of them look ready to take apps beyond promise and novelty.

These Digital Meditation Tools Can Be Your Gateway To A Calmer, More Effective Life.
Meditation, an ancient practice of calming the mind, would seem to be incompatible with modern technology, with its emphasis on speed and connectivity. But as more and more Americans have embraced meditation as an antidote to hyper-connected lives, the world of technology has joined the movement. The result is a growing field of meditation tools — from apps and podcasts to timers and online classes — and a growing acknowledgment that, paradoxically, technology can help us to turn inward, still our minds, and shut out the many distractions around us.

Most of these services are free or carry a modest charge. It will be interesting to see how these services develop and change because we just at the start-up phase of adapting an ancient discipline to modern means.

Gregoire adds a story about social trends leading towards interest in mindfulness: Why 2014 Will Be The Year Of Mindful Living.

Prison inmates take to yoga

It’s not “news,” but it’s published in the New York Times:

New York TimesIf the Sun Salutation Has to Fit Into a Cell
The class was the fourth that Jim Freeman, a lawyer turned yogi and the founder of Conviction Yoga, has led at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Powledge Unit in East Texas. For the inmates, the weekly two-hour sessions offer a reprieve from their cells and the boredom of prison life, along with physical and mental health benefits. And the Powledge chaplain said corrections officers saw better behavior from inmates who took part in spiritual programs that gave them a chance to exercise.

Yoga and meditation are increasingly used in prison. Good for the inmates, and bravo to the teachers mentors who take the lead in going into prisons. Now if we could only get the justice system to work right so that we don’t have the highest percentage of imprisoned population in the world.

More whining about plumbing, an aging body and yoga

I woke up this morning feeling sore and stiff. Some of my body issues were due to a  class at Thrive Yoga with Susan Bowen on Sunday that made me awaken under-used muscles. I’ve also increased my time spent cross-legged in meeting my blood vow to devote morning time to meditation.

The other reason was that I finished a remodeling project on our bathroom, requiring the installation of a new wash basin vanity and toilet (I had started the previous weekend). It’s a good thing that I do practice yoga because I had to twist and contort my limbs and torso to reach plumbing fittings. Seating a water-saving toilet over the drain hole appropriately requires a lot of core strength. My brain also got a workout because although plumbing has systematic procedures, parts and tools, they are not readily understandable to novices, even with a do-it-yourself manual available. Multiple trips  to the hardware store were required to get the right parts (I now remind myself to save your receipts). Since I do this kind of work on irregular basis, I never get to acquire the necessary job skills.

My wife’s consolation after reviewing my handy work was “We saved a lot of money.”

This steady siphoning of time and energy into home improvement is the drawback of working at home. I am drawn into home maintenance and improvement projects that I avoided when I had to show up for a 5-9 job five days a week. Of course, a lot of my projects over the past few months were chores accumulated during that time so it was bound to get me sometime or we would have had to hire someone to do it.

 

A compact for a new personal interface to life

Photo: hands held in yoga mudra
The mudra (thumb to pointer finger) is held in standing position.

I have struck a bargain with myself—a new compact to simplify my personal priorities.

  1. I will meditate twice a day for 20 minutes, minimum. I may cut myself some slack if I have a yoga class or have a complication, but the morning sit has to be a blood vow. Aside from exercise (yoga), this is the most important thing that I can do for myself according to the most recent scientific research.
  2. I will pause three (OK, maybe two) beats before speaking and take a more thoughtful pace when speaking as a way of being more present in the moment, listening to both my counterpart in the conversation and my own internal dialogue. The idea is to create some “space” where I can be more aware and attentive in the present moment and not be led astray by my own tendency to get lost in a stream of words, fragments, tangents and monologues. In a way, it is a continuation from meditation practice.
  3. I will slow down my yoga practice by taking restorative, yin or nidra yoga classes as often as feasible, and also continue my home restorative practice. Even my hatha or vinyasa classes should be done as slowly as possible. I need to soften my exterior armor and open up, which will come with greater vulnerability.

I make these three commitments because I’ve had time to think about some questions about the basics: How do I improve my quality of life? How do I engage the outside world? How do I sketch out my interface with the world (geek speak here, as in user interface, the mechanisms to manage software or hardware). Rather than resort to what might be typical tactics of self-improvement (become a vegetarian, learn to play a musical instrument, become a better public speaker), I want to get down to even more fundamental issues.

During my yoga teacher training at Thrive Yoga, I became aware that there is a big difference between my packaging  and my essential core (what lies underneath my thick skin, calluses, scars, knots, kinks, ticks, reflex reactions, open wounds, hardened muscles and fascia, and the stories that I tell myself). Part of the challenge of living wholeheartedly is breaking through all that external armor mounted over decades so that I open up a window into the core chamber of my being.

An anniversary, illness, injury and spiritual practice

September 5 was my 39th wedding anniversary so Teresa put a air ticket in my hand and we headed off to Boca Raton, Florida, to spend a week together. I owed it to Teresa because I had been isolated (in mind and body, at least) for a month doing my yoga teacher training at Thrive Yoga. Now Teresa got her chance to get my exclusive attention.

Photo: couple sitting on the beach with waves in background
Our 39th anniversary found us in the Boca Raton beach, enjoying the Florida surf and sun.

Of course, there were other complications. The week before, I came down with acute bronchitis, which kept me pretty debilitated and hoarse for most of a week. I had to give up yoga classes. Even when I was in Florida, my breathing was wheezing whenever I did anything too strenuous. I had to be careful doing my restorative practice in the evening because I felt the phlegm bubbling in my chest when I was laying down, and it would frequently provoke coughing. Luckily, I was still able to walk around so that was our main activity in Boca Raton.  There were lots of jellyfish just off the shore, which discouraged us from spending a lot of time in the water. On our last day, the winds and tides seemed to clear waters of the jellyfish so we could spend more time swimming. Continue reading An anniversary, illness, injury and spiritual practice

Yoga helps turn around prison inmates

Photo: inmates seated in meditation on bunks
Photo courtesy of the movie Dharma Brothers.

Yoga and meditation can play a major role in turning around prison inmates. Illinois is just one state that has taken this approach or allowed volunteer organizations to support it. Yoga for prison inmates is no longer a stretch (CorrectionsOne.com, originally in the Chicago Tribune):

Yoga and meditation sessions have been a mainstay in the women’s jail for six years, since a group of volunteers from a local nonprofit that encourages yoga as an element of rehabilitation started showing up, mats in tow, and leading classes for all female inmates, said Alisa Kannett, an administrator with the nonprofit Yoga for Recovery. For years correctional facilities across Illinois and the country have been implementing yoga workshops and programs, sometimes at the urging of inmates, and the trend is growing, said Gabriella Savelli, director of Prison S.M.A.R.T. The group has helped implement yoga programs at 36 correctional facilities in 21 states, including at a men’s boot camp in Cook County and Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill.

Also see the video that accompanies this article.

Spotlight on a DC meditation teacher

Tara Brach is a psychologist and teacher on Buddhist meditation. She is the founder and senior teacher of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, a spiritual community that practices Vipassana meditation.

The Washington Post Meditation guru Tara Brach is calm eye of Washington’s stress-filled storm
Listening that night would be far more than the 300 people in the room. Brach’s talks are downloaded free nearly 200,000 times each month by people in more than 150 countries. Strangers write from around the world to say her words have saved them from committing suicide or relapsing into drugs. Government contractors who parachute into the District plan trips around her class. One devotee last year gave her newborn son the middle name Brach.

Her latest book, True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart was published earlier this year and has become a best seller (for good reason). I’ve written about her dharma talks before (both attending the talks in Potomac and the audio files available online). She has deeply influenced my life even though I have never personally spoken to her..

10 things I got out of 40-day renewal

I participated in the 40-day renewal program at Thrive Yoga, which ended on February 11. I did not have a chance to comment on my participation but I did want to record some take aways. It was my second time and I was determined to take it mindfully. Indeed, I had to take it slower because it took me the first four weeks to get back into shape.

  1. My blood pressure went down by 15-20 points by the end. In early January, I had been caught by surprise when the nurse at work measured my blood pressure and found it over 135/85. I had never had blood pressure issues before, but stress had started to take a toll.
  2. My weight dropped, ending up closer to 200 pounds, than 210 pounds at the start. I can’t give precise numbers because, as with most people, my weight tends to swing by 2-4 pounds, depending on the time of day, birthday cakes, and health. Since my parents’ deaths two years, I’ve noticed how my weight had gradually increased, until it plateaued just below the 210-pound mark so all I needed was an illness or life style change to push my weight up even more.
  3. By the end, in savasana (corpse pose), I noticed that my thighs and calves rested on the ground. Previously, my hip joints were well off the mat and made it impossible to rest all my legs on the ground. In fact, I can remember having problems with my heels because they were bearing much of the weight of my legs. That change signaled that there had been a shift in the tilt of my hips, along with a major realignment of the muscles descending from my core to my legs.
  4. Since I started in bad physical shape, I was trapped in a dead-end: I couldn’t boost my yoga practice because I did not have the strength or stamina to go full bore in a normal vinyasa class; I frequently sought relief in child’s pose. I didn’t want to force myself because I had injured myself before from over-efforting. I couldn’t fit some aerobic exercise at my fitness club because I did not have the spare time—and the time required for meditation went up each week. I ended up developing a routine in my workplace: every time, I needed to go to the restroom or take a break, I went to the basement and then climbed the nine flights of stairs up to my office cubicle. It only takes five minutes, but done 3-5 times a day, it allowed me to improve my strength. I also tried to do some of my desk work standing up, instead of sitting. These changes probably had a lot to do with my improved blood pressure and weight. But it was the 40-day renewal that made me focus on how fit I was. I couldn’t brush it off as something insignificant or passing.
  5. Because of the conditioning and injury issues, I had to think of myself as a beginner, but with the advantage that I had already learned the poses. I did not have to obsess about getting perfect alignment. I could just focus on being in the asana. I had less preference for which instructor was giving the class or at what level. I was adapting the rigors of the class to my own body’s needs.
  6. I avoided any pose that might injure me because I felt as if I was learning to handle my body all over again. My hips seemed especially problematic, which affect the stability of my spine and my balance. I did not go into binds, which are kind of icing on top of an asana or escalate a pose from its basic form to a more advanced variation.
  7. Coming back from injury or a long layoff gives a fresh perspective on the body and practice. I paid as much attention to where my body felt numb as I did to where I was fully aware. My proprioception has taken a major hit from my peripheral neuropathy. I found that some poses provoked numbness in my feet. It’s hard to single out which ones because I am usually moving through the sequence of a vinyasa when the numbness happens, and it usually dissipates with a little time. Indeed, restorative poses and hip stretches are the best medicine in the evening to relieve symptoms to let me sleep.
  8. I discovered far more flexibility than I had had: deeper forward folds, more space and movement between my shoulder girdle.
  9. The hardest part of the 40-day renewal was maintaining discipline in the meditation practice. It is so hard to be still in my own skin and life. And when I settle down in the evening for my transition routine, it’s so easy to slip into sleep so I doubt the quality of my meditation at that time.
  10. By the end of the renewal program, I was back to where I felt I could participate in a vinyasa class without undue distress. But it will take time and persistence to generate additional shifts in my well being because you can’t flip a switch to change the body or the mind.

Clarification: I did not want to let this post slip beyond the end of February. I’ve found it so hard to find time to write here, and I hate the thought of letting an entire month go by without an entry. Guilt is not the best motivator, but sometimes I just need a kick in the pants.

BuddhaFest – June 14-17

Since I am making up for a prolonged silence and not blogging, there is another DC event that should be mentioned:

BuddhaFest – Films Talks Meditation Music

Brought to you by the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW) and Tricycle magazine.

Oh, wait. I am too late to make much of a difference. Practically all the all day passes have sold out. You may be able to get individual tickets for films or dharma talks. On Sunday night, Krishna Das will be chanting a tribute to Ram Das, but you’d want to tickets in advance.