Early this morning I walked the path of the parkway near our home, along the Menomonee River, as I’ve done many times.
Far ahead were two figures, standing, facing each other at opposite sides of the paved, 10-foot wide path. Also on the path, a few walkers, runners and bikers were coming towards me.
Walking, I thought about my plans for the day. Not so much what I would do, but what I wouldn’t.
Today I would not teach an aqua class at the YMCA, or a tai chi or yoga class either.
A couple walked past. I glanced at them, lifted a hand, and they did the same. My lips silently formed the words “good morning”. So did theirs.
I eyed the figures, still far ahead, still facing each other at opposite sides of the path. Two men, talking and gesticulating.
A runner came by, avoiding eye contact. So did a dog walker, although I smiled at the dog when it looked my way.
As I got a little closer to the talking men, my eyes measured the distance between them. They were at a socially acceptable distance from each other. If I walked between them at the center of the path, I would not be.
Should I walk around one of them? How far around? I still had time to decide.
Today was also not a day I would be volunteering at the library. I would not be lunching with a friend, or handing out early voting flyers at the DMV. I would not be going to my favorite coffee shop to write my blog, or catching a movie at the cinema in the mall.
As I walked closer to the men, they each moved back, on to the grass, widening their distance by several feet. My decision made, I walked down the center of the path between them.
Not talking now, they each waved and smiled, then resumed their conversation as I walked by. I couldn’t make out a single word, but I had no doubt what they were discussing.
And then I understood. Today would be the day I'd help create a way of interacting with others, of living in this world. A new etiquette, as we walked this familiar but surreal new path.
Twenty years ago my husband and I watched a television show together and somehow just never stopped. That’s how we’ve managed to enjoy all 40 seasons of Survivor.
Near the end of each episode, in case you haven’t been watching, I’ll tell you that Jeff, the host, often mentions that as long as a contestant’s torch is lit, they are in the game, because “fire is life”. When he says this, I find myself thinking, “Actually, Jeff, breath is life”. Because, it is.
Through years of learning anatomy and physiology, administering oxygen, performing CPR and assisting anesthesiologists to intubate patients, I’ve regarded breath, the presence of breath, the lack of breath, the struggle for breath and the ease of breath, as a central aspect of life.
How perfect is it that I love the practice of yoga, which honors and uses breath to guide movement and build strength, balance and relaxation?
Every practitioner comes to yoga from a different place, with a unique set of physical and emotional challenges. They could be looking for respite from a trying situation, trying to improve their health, or simply hoping to stretch out a kinked back muscle. Some are looking for the feeling of unity that comes from practicing yoga in a group.
In yoga, we try to make the mat, or chair, a safe space, where we can be free to perform our asanas, or poses, in the best way for each of us, with no judgement from others.
When I teach yoga, we start by connecting with our breath. Inhaling, allowing the breath to start in the belly and fill the torso, then exhaling completely, then repeating the process.The inhalation, ideally 3-5 seconds long, is followed by an exhalation, which we strive to make almost twice as long.
Inhaling and exhaling through the nose requires a bit more effort and leads to a greater workout for our muscles of respiration, but I assure my yogis that any comfortable breath of any length and type is beneficial.
Sometimes we move through guided breaths in which I ask participants to pause, then resume, an inhale and exhale. Sometimes we try for three brief inhales or exhales to completely fill or empty the lungs. Or, it’s nadi shodhana pranayama, alternate nostril breathing, which can lower blood pressure and increase relaxation.
In my chair yoga classes we occasionally perform laughter yoga, taking very deep breaths and laughing them out. I make faces, tell corny jokes and try to coax yogis into letting their fake laughter become real.
After guided breaths, we go on to movement with breath, moving arms, legs or torso into a pose with an inhale, for example, and releasing a pose with an exhale, always moving within the degree of space and flexibility available to each of us.
In poses that require balance, breath becomes even more vital. Holding breath while attempting a balance pose is counter-productive and can cause distress; using breath while balancing increases the chance of success.
At the end of each yoga class, we perform savasana, or corpse pose, calling on our breath to deepen and slow. During savasana, I encourage inhaling a feeling of relaxation and exhaling that relaxation to every area of the body.
When class is over and we leave the mat or chair, I want each participant to feel like a survivor, having met the challenges of their practice to the best of their ability, relaxation and a feeling of strength gently pulsing through their bodies with every breath they take.
We’ve already had an end of a decade in the current century and I don’t remember it being much of a thing, but now we have another new decade starting in a couple of days and it has me thinking.
What do I appreciate more now than I did 10 years ago?
Well, coffee, for one. Ever since I learned that dark roast coffee beans have less caffeine (thank you Costa Rican coffee tour) I have left my caffeine worries behind along with dreadful decaffeinated coffee. I also appreciate coffee shops. Being partially retired, I have time to while away the hours every so often at our friendly and comfortable neighborhood coffee shop, where maybe not everybody but at least a few people know my name (mostly because they write it on my cup).
And yoga. Practicing and teaching yoga has brought me comfort, more flexible joints, a stronger core, better balance and the ability to look inward and find peace in trying times. I also appreciate the opportunity to be creative that yoga gives me each week as I plan the content of my classes.
I certainly appreciate walking. I’m pretty sure I took walking for granted before, but in this decade I have not. A left hip tear (it healed after many months) and a falling apart right knee (replaced earlier this year) made me very aware of how complicated and disheartening it is to walk with pain and how appreciated and freeing pain-free walking can be.
Grandchildren. Oh, I so appreciate grandchildren. It’s no secret that I adore our son, and I like other children quite a bit. Gaining grandchildren (one of each) during the past 10 years has enhanced my life immeasurably. As babies, they brought me back to my early days of motherhood, with all the positive and loving memories that entails. Now, as they reach each age and master new accomplishments, I enjoy everything along with them. Coloring? They think I’m Monet. Soccer, baseball, video games? I don’t play that well, but I’m a very good audience. Frozen (1 and 2), the Little Mermaid, what Barbie has been up to since I last spent time with her? It’s all there for me now.
I appreciate compassion. Navigating bumps in the road during the past decade has helped me appreciate receiving and giving compassion as never before. I like to think I’ve become less judgmental, and more forgiving, in the past ten years. I hope so.
Technology is something I appreciate more now than in the past decade, maybe because I use it more all the time. Registering to vote online couldn’t be easier. An enormous number of books are readily available via library websites. Recipes for absolutely everything I want to cook are instantly found and if I don’t feel like cooking I can search restaurant menus or order delivery online. And, I appreciate the technology that gives me a map to practically any place on earth right on my phone, no re-folding necessary.
Last, but not least, texting. Texting wasn’t available in much of the previous decade, but I have really embraced an appreciation of it now. I have friends who don’t text, and that’s ok, but honestly, my friends who text make sharing information and planning around our busy schedules much more efficient. Sorry, friends who don’t text. I still love you, but could you maybe step it up in the next decade?
When I retired, I beat an immediate path to the YMCA.
At the Y, I was dazzled by the array of things to do. Water classes, aerobic exercise, a walking track, lots of equipment and exercise machines to learn.
And yoga, of course. Yoga, that I was never going to try again. Because I wasn’t flexible. And didn’t enjoy it. And wasn’t good at it. So, I tried lots of things, but not yoga.
For a few weeks I was obsessed by machines that worked every area of the body and counted repetitions. I challenged myself to perform more reps each week. I could link my workouts to an online program that showed my progress and measure myself against the progress of other users as well. I loved the competition of those workouts.
The Y then discontinued that particular equipment and somehow I never quite enjoyed the replacement equipment as much. The new machines had no online component. I used them, but the feelings of competition and challenge were gone.
Around this time, to my surprise, I began to feel the pull of the yoga studio. I saw people of all ages, but mostly younger than me, carrying mats, and would glimpse them stretched out in the semi darkness of the yoga studio.
I decided to drop in for a class. The instructor, recognizing that I was new, approached me and urged me to take it easy and not overstretch when attempting poses.
Beginning the class, she discussed the importance of breathing, and led us in several different breathing techniques. We started moving into slow, simple poses that were accessible and gentle, then gradually moved on to poses that were more challenging.
The instructor talked about body alignment, and about each of us working within our own level of comfort and ability. She stressed that yoga was non-competitive, and that we could each focus on our own practice. I couldn't perform all of the poses, but she gave options to modify the poses and I felt I was accomplishing what I could.
With the class nearing conclusion, we spent a few minutes stretched out in a comfortable pose known as Savasana, or Corpse pose. I felt relaxed and almost as if I was floating slightly above the yoga mat.
So this was what yoga was supposed to feel like!
I became a regular at this class. I adored the instructor, whom I trusted to safely guide me in this new practice. And, that's when I fell in love with yoga, not yet realizing that in less than a year I would be teaching my own yoga classes.
When I met Yoga
Yoga and I met when I was in my 40’s and it didn’t go well.
I was fairly fit and accustomed to exercise. Active in my job, I also biked and enjoyed regular aerobic dance classes. Looking for something new and different, I registered for a series of yoga classes.
Classes were described as suitable for all levels of experience. I knew that yoga was related to peace and relaxation, flexibility and strength. That sounded appealing. Yoga featured challenging poses I could learn. This was going to be great!
At the first class, I didn’t let the instructor know I was new and she didn’t ask. The class started, the instructor called out poses and I tried to emulate her, and those around me. Then we moved on to another pose that I didn’t know how to do.
There was no explanation of poses, no mention of body alignment, breathing or working within our own abilities. The other class members seemed to be experienced in practicing yoga.
For me, the class was awkward, uncomfortable and demoralizing. After two classes, my body felt stiff and sore. I couldn’t seem to get into any of the poses and it all felt wrong.
I reasoned that yoga was not for me. I wasn’t flexible enough to do the poses, and there was nothing relaxing going on.
I quit the class, and was relieved to get back to aerobic dance, sure I was leaving yoga behind forever.
But yoga had other plans for me.
Not exactly Retirement
At the end of March, 2014, I retired after working as a Registered Nurse almost continuously for 45 years.
I retired partly because my husband wanted us to retire together. In good health at retirement age, he had successfully fought through a bad bout with cancer a couple of years earlier. I supported his wish to be done with work, to golf as much as possible and to enjoy the rest of our years together.
About a week into retirement I realized that I needed a routine and purpose each day. So, I joined the YMCA. I thought I'd walk the track and maybe get on an elliptical and stationary bike a couple of times a week.
Instead, I started taking classe in Yoga, Chair Yoga, Water Strength and Aerobics, CardioSculpt, and Zumba Gold. I also took a Women and Weights class and learned a lot about using free weights and weight machines. I was certainly developing a routine and purpose each day.
A couple of months later I was asked if I’d be interested in getting certified to teach Silver Sneakers classes to active older adults.
There was an available Chair Yoga class once a week that needed an instructor. I agreed, received training and by August I was teaching not one but four Chair Yoga classes a week, along with a Water class.
That soon expanded to another Chair Yoga class, a Gentle Yoga class (via a further certification in Yoga) and a Tai Chi class.
Teaching 8 classes a week, plus subbing from time to time, keeps me busy and focused on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays I'm happy to relax or stay busy as the day unfolds. Go out to lunch or read a book. Volunteer at the library or visit an art museum. Maybe cook a gourmet meal in the middle of the week.
Life right now feels pretty perfect. If I could I would press pause and stay right here in this so-called retirement for a very long time.