“Just for a few moments, simply sit, breathe comfortably (close your eyes if you’d like), and allow yourself to be at ease. Stop reading, stop all activity, and notice what happens.”—Stephen Cope
In this piece, Stephen Cope, Director of Kripalu’s Institute for Extraordinary Living, investigates how and why practices like yoga and meditation create a sense of well-being and ease.
Recently, I was talking on the phone with my friend Sandy, who had just gone through an unexpected relationship meltdown. Her partner, Tim, she said, had suddenly developed “intimacy issues” and had fled the relationship “like a rat off a sinking ship.”
For an hour or so, we talked about the difficulties of her situation. She expressed her sense of disorientation and sadness. Toward the end, she said something interesting: “Thank God I have my yoga practice.” I could feel the gratitude in her voice. “It’s a little island of sanity. Like coming home. That hour between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. has become the most important hour of my day.”
I’ve always been an exceedingly devoted friend, so much so that, when I was in high school, my father, perhaps in a fit of frustration and almost certainly with unintended cruelty, informed me that my friends would never be there for me the way I insisted on being there for them. I’m guessing, now, that he was only trying to protect me from hurt and disappointment, or perhaps encourage a sense of cynicism (that has since served me well as a journalist, if not as an optimist). But at the time it only made me feel sad. That might be his experience, I thought, but it wasn’t going to be mine. Once I made a friend, I made a friend for life.
At 35, I’ve largely stuck to this philosophy, collecting friends through my various life experiences—college, jobs, yoga classes, travels—and only rarely shedding them. Perhaps this need to connect with and amass people—a mix of confidantes and companions—is a byproduct of being an only child; I seek friends to fill the space siblings otherwise might have. For a few summers in my twenties, though, the habit had me spending the bulk of my weekends at weddings. It was not a cheap hobby.
The other day at the end of a vinyasa yoga class I did my usual thing of plopping down and gearing up for Savasana with no blanket or sweater to get warm and cozy. Being in a large, chilly room, I sensed that I might need extra warmth but paid no mind. The teacher, Andrew, prompted us to “Take this time to allow the hard work to land, and nurture your self in resting pose.” Upon hitting the deck and doing my utmost to actually get comfortable—doing a brief body scan to relax myself—I lay there wondering why my need to be self-sufficient had, yet again, left me bare-skinned and frigid, trying to relax my shivering bones into Corpse pose.
Being somewhat small in stature, and a good-natured vata/pitta, my tendency is to be high energy and cold most of the time. Andrew started to walk around the room, his soothing voice gently guiding the group into a restful state, and asked anyone who might want a blanket to raise their hand. I pondered his offer and observed myself as I refused to raise my hand, even though I was chilly and unable to settle comfortably into Savasana.
Lorraine Cannatta, guest blogger
My decision to study Ayurveda evolved out of a family trauma. My son, Jacob, and his wife and daughter were visiting me and my husband, Peter, in the summer of 2005 when Jacob became severely ill. He was hospitalized and put on life support. The doctors were unable to determine a diagnosis, which made treatment difficult. For several days, we were unsure whether he would speak again, or even awaken. One or more family members were with him around the clock.
After 11 days in the critical-care unit, Jacob came home and began his recovery with us. Today, we are blessed to have him well. Though we were never able to get definitive evidence, we believe inhaling mold while renovating his newly purchased home caused what is called a “whiteout” of the lungs—when the alveoli constrict so tightly there’s no longer any space for air to pass.
Do you suffer from anxiety, poor digestion, or lack of focus? When life’s demands overwhelm us, Angela Wilson, Manager of Evidence-Based Yoga Curriculum for Kripalu’s Institute for Extraordinary Living, explains in her R&R retreat lecture Cultivating Inner Strength, our nervous system gets out of balance. Through the practices of yoga meditation, and mindfulness, however, we can build resilience in order to be fully aware of all our experiences.
As Angela explains, there are two main branches of the nervous system. There’s the sympathetic nervous system, which activates the fight-or-flight response in reaction to stressful situations. It’s a hot, reactive state, which increases heart rate and primes the body for action. The other branch is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is activated when the body is relaxed. The parasympathetic supports a cooling, restful and state. It soothes the system, aids in digestion, and can be fostered through yoga practice.
Do you find yourself focusing on what isn’t happening in your life? Perhaps you find yourself stressed out about something that hasn’t even taken place yet, imagining and envisioning its worst-case scenario. As you indulge in these negative thoughts, notice how everything tightens up, both inside and around you. By not living in the moment, scarcity—that feeling of constriction and lack—pulls at us.
By being present in the moment and relaxing into what is happening, doors open wide for us. Abundance is available here, in this very moment, through mindful breath, relaxation, and gratitude.
Consider abundance, not in its usual connotation of wealth and plenty, but in its more energetic experience, as the fullness of spirit, an overflowing of presence that brings us deep connection to the moment.
I’ve been interviewing healers and spiritual teachers for a while now, and when I ask them how to live a healthier and happier life, many offer the same answer: meditate.
I hate that answer. When I was 19, I attended a 10-day meditation retreat that necessitated giving up my worldly possessions for the length of the stay, not talking, not making eye contact with anyone, and sitting in silence from 6:00 in the morning until 9:00 at night, with short breaks for meals and meditation lectures. By day two, I was like a prisoner of war planning the Great Escape. One morning after breakfast, when no one was looking, I fled the retreat in a frenzy; I just couldn’t sit in silence for 10 days and do nothing. OK, so maybe “fled” is somewhat of an exaggeration, but the bottom line is I couldn’t take it anymore. I’m just not a fan of meditation. An admirer, yes, but not a fan.
But according to Panache Desai, the spiritual teacher and inspirational visionary who chatted with me during our Kripalu Perspectives podcast, you don’t need to meditate to live a healthier and more joyful life—you just need to incorporate one of the essential elements of meditation into your day.
“Watch your breath,” says Desai, “the inhalation and the exhalation.”
A cancer survivor explores bold new directions
When I plopped into the Radiance program’s opening night welcome circle, I was exhausted. That morning, I had attended the memorial service for my dear friend, Dara, who had passed a week before. A couple hundred people gathered to share stories, laughter, tears, and outrage that this beautiful, lively, loving soul had left at age 40, from cancer.
And now, a train ride and time warp later, here I was in the branch-filled Berkshires, sitting in a back jack, meeting eight cancer survivors and our co-leader Maria Sirois. In that moment, “life after cancer” looked to me like throwing a rose on my friend’s coffin and hearing it thud. It looked like crying myself to sleep every night for the last two weeks.
But as I settled in and heard tales of diagnosis and survival, I remembered: Oh. We’re all still here. In my fellow workshoppers—eight people from their 30s through 50s—I saw stress and fear and bravery and resilience and resistance. I saw myself. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma seven years ago at age 31, I had almost been forgetting that I was a survivor, too.