Lessons from the Life of Birds
by Rebecca Coffey
This winter, I have been taking classes from some very wise teachers. They just so happen to be birds.
I’m a high school English teacher, and I bring my love for meditation, movement, and nature into my classroom. My students this year have learned how to meditate and pondered life—and yes, the SATs—as we take moments to look out my large picture window and breathe.
My classroom overlooks a beautiful salt marsh, where the birds come in droves. We have a front row seat on a vibrant habitat. In winter, the birds make their home among the tall marsh reeds, and we often see a huge scattering of them suddenly descend onto briar bushes for berries, or notice hawks lazily coasting on the wind high above the trees that line the edges of the marsh.
Observing bird life has always had a calming effect on me. However, this winter, the birds have been offering more: actual lessons.
In our fast-paced world, it’s so difficult to honor cycles, seasons, and flow. When we’re pushed and encouraged to overwork, we compromise other aspects of ourselves. We may be rewarded for struggling, but struggle and striving far too often cause eventual burnout, physically and/or emotionally, and can make us less effective and productive. It’s easy for me to make time for my students to practice breathing and meditating before a test or during a stressful day. As with most things I teach, however, those are the very lessons that I still need to learn.
Often in life, I want things to move more quickly. It’s not unheard of for me to start crossing off the months of winter and the days left when I’ll need to shovel snow. I sometimes think that I can push things along—such as the duration of a New England winter—simply by wishing them to be different than they are.
The birds outside my classroom seem to handle winter just fine, though. They have fuzzy, soft down coats. They huddle together in the tall marsh weeds, find the hidden berries, and dig up worms when the earth softens for spells. Everything seems to make sense and be in its perfect order and timing. Every year, it all works out just fine for the birds.
This year, I have robins—more robins than I have ever seen in my life. I also have cardinals, both male and female. Before recognizing my classroom vantage point, I had thought cardinals only came out to dance in the early spring, but now I can see them dance all winter long. Each day before school, I turn off my classroom lights and watch the birds, the trees, and the sky. I’ve been learning about seasons, timing, patience, and trust. Most important, I have been learning about being in the flow of life, rather than trying to control it or struggle against it. Watching the birds, I slowly gain perspective, and notice that things unfold in a mysterious order that I don't fully grasp, but can choose to rest in and trust.
Birds don't worry, and yet they are beautifully provided for. They flow with the seasons, and don't seem to have any trouble with patience or long winters, like I do. I like to imagine that they, too, have at one time learned to flow with the natural seasons and cycles, and this is why they so masterfully demonstrate that it's futile to work against that flow.
In the Kripalu Yoga tradition we have an acronym—BRFWA: Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, Allow. When I do this practice, even for a few seconds in my day, I find that things open up, life flows more easily, and my nervous system receives a rest from the toxicity of worry and stress. It’s not always easy to take those moments in our day, but if you can find a window and a marsh, watching the birds can be a reminder to pause.
Rebecca Coffey is a Boston-based Kripalu Yoga teacher, and the founder of Bravedancing, which offers classes, trainings, private consultations, and retreats in yoga, dance, meditation, and other healing modalities.
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