Road trip to Camp

The major highlight of being involved with NalandaWay Foundation was being able to attend, observe and help facilitate an arts camp called Kanavu Pattarai (dream workshop).  The purpose of the camp is to immerse youth in community building strategies. By using arts based and mindfulness practices, Kanavu Pattarai camps educate and train diverse communities to create responsible children who are expressive and positive in their choices.

Before we arrived at the camp for this session, our group stopped along to visit some other groups at some different schools who had already experienced Kanavu Pattarai in previous sessions.  The kids had recalled what they learned, shared with us the art and skits they created during camp.  I even got to facilitate some group yoga practices.  What a treat!

The best part for me was being able to interact with the kids, and noticing how receptive they were to my presence and trusting me to guide them through some poses.  What a warm reception and some stand out, unforgettable moments.

Here is a glimpse of some of the students I met, the schools I visited, and what they shared with us:

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Students were game for a few yoga poses.  Tree pose is always a good one to try.
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In Andhra Pradesh, the land is a lot drier and rockier.
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Mural painting is big everywhere you go, although this one is fades, it’s still beautiful.
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I had a chance to visit a girls school, the whole school was bright, cheerful, and boasted lots of arts integration.
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Meeting with a group of girls who participated in a previous camp.
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We also visited a residential school.  These kids were energetic, lively, and so friendly.
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Listening carefully to a few members who were speaking about the importance of the arts, but also how the arts can be a catalyst for social improvement among peers.

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Part of the camp process is to create a banner to bring back to the school.  This group worked hard to create a message about equality and acceptance.

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More to come from this trip. Stay tuned.

Stress, contiuned.

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Water usually has a calming effect on me, but sometimes the water gets churned up, causing a lot of movement and instability. Stress is like that too!

Friday I actually had to really be aware of my stress response.  I’m fine, but something happened where I had to notice how stress was affecting my body.  Since I was able to recognize my response to the stress, I was able to manage it.  Because I managed it, I was able to think clearly and act.

Has that ever happened to you?  Ever get nervous or anxious because of a particular situation and didn’t know what to do next?  Have you been in an argument and it got so elevated that you couldn’t even think about what was being said?

In some cases stress can actually shut down parts of your brain that remembers and thinks.  So, managing your stress can actually keep your brain working, even in extreme stress.  You may notice what happens in your body when a stressful situation occurs. For example, on Friday, I noticed that my breathe quickened, my heart rate increased, I was in a state of freeze.  I didn’t know what to do next.

I believe that by regularly practicing yoga and mindfulness I am getting better at being aware those sensations.  I was able to recognize I was feeling stressed and then do something to calm myself down so I could do something about the situation.

Here is a practice you can use to notice sensations that come up in your body*:

Focus Breath

  •  Start by closing your eyes or softening your gaze, exhale and let all the air out of your lungs.
  • Now breathe in and breathe out. Continue this breath 4 or 5 times.

Arm Movements

  •  Sit with a straight back and your feet on the floor.
  • Press your hands together at your chest.
  • When you breathe in, take the palms out in front of you and then apart to the sides.
  • When you breathe out, bring the hands back together, then to the chest.
  • As you bring your hands out try stretch your fingers out wide.
  • Do this a few more times to find a rhythm.
  • Now sync the movement with your breath, inhale for 4 counts and bring the arms out, exhale for 8 counts and bring the arms in.
  • Do this for 4 more rounds.
  • After your rounds, relax your arms down to your lap and just sit.  See if you can notice sensations.  Notice how your arms feel.  Take a few breaths here just to notice.

Mountain Pose

  •  Stand on mountain pose (feet parallel and hip distance apart, standing up straight, shoulders down, tall spine).
  • Press your hands together at the center of your chest and close your eyes or look down towards your hands.
  • Breathe in and out for 4 rounds.
  • On your next breath in, tense your whole body from the bottom of the feet to the top of your head.  Breathe in and tense all the muscles you can – your toes and feet, legs, stomach, arms and shoulders, hands and fingers, even your face.  Hold!
  • Breathe out and release and relax the muscles.
  • Repeat tensing the muscles again on an inhale and hold.
  • Breath out and release and relax the muscles.
  • One more round, tense the muscles from the feet to the head.  Hold.
  • Breathe out, release, and relax.
  • Shake out your arms and legs.
  • Come back to stillness after a few breaths.

Standing Crescent Moon

  •  Begin in Mountain Pose
  • On your next breath in reach your arms up above your head and clasp your hands
  • On your exhale, keeping your arms straight and hands together lean to the right just enough to feel a stretch on the side of your body
  • Inhale, come back to center, arms still straight above your head, and hands clasped.
  • Breathe out, and lean to the left
  • Continue the sync the movement with your breath
  • Do a few more rounds
  • Next time you exhale relax the arms down at your sides
  • Now do the same movement, but hold the pose 3 breaths per side.
  • Notice if you start to feel more sensations, or have an urge to come out of the pose early.
  • Notice small and big sensations
  • Use your breath to keep you call, even if it’s uncomfortable.  Knowing that you’ll come out of the pose any time if you need to.
  • After 3 rounds of holding Standing Crescent Moon release your arms down to your sides relax.
  • Stand in mountain pose and just notice if you feel anything.

Neck Movements

  •  Sit down in your chair once more.  Straight back.
  • On an exhale let your right ear fall towards your right shoulder
  • Inhale and bring your head back to center
  • Exhale, and let your left ear fall towards your left shoulder
  • Repeat and sync this movement with your breath for a few more rounds
  • Bring your head back to center
  • Exhale look right
  • Inhale back to center
  • Exhale look left
  • Inhale back to center
  • Repeat  this movement with your breath a few more rounds
  • Back to center
  • Inhale, lift your chest up an look up slightly, be careful not to strain your neck
  • Exhale, tuck your chin and roll your head forward towards your chest
  • Repeat a few more rounds

Mindful Breath

  •  Notice the rhythm of your breath right now.
  • After noticing, deepen your breath.
  • Close your eyes or just soften your gaze.
  • Continue to make full and complete breaths.
  • Notice if you are sitting up straight, or if your posture has changed.
  • Place your hand on your chest.  Notice how your chest moves as you breathe.
  • Now place your hand on your belly. Notice how your belly moves as you breathe.
  • Place both hand in your lap, and now see if you can notice the belly and the lungs move as you breathe.
  • Notice your ribs expanding and contracting.
  • Notice the small movement in your shoulders as you breathe.
  • Just notice, no judgement.
  • Open your eyes and notice how you feel.

Silent Refection

  •  Sit silently for one minute and just notice how you feel.
  • Close your eyes or just look down and focus on yourself.
  • Notice your feet resting on the floor.
  • Notice your legs relaxed on the chair.
  • Notice your arms and shoulders, a bit more relaxed.
  • Notice your breathe and notice the muscles in your face may feel more relaxed.

How do you feel? When you notice sensations that mean stress in the body, what can you do next time?

*(Remember that you are your own best judge of what feels good for yourself or for your students. This is how I usually sequence a practice for myself and for students.)

Stress! Oh no!!

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High levels of stress can really effect our abilities.  We can see stress crop up in a lot of different areas in our life: home, lack of support, traumatic events, pressure to do well, and even pressure from those who are close to us.  What mindfulness does is bring awareness back to our reactions to stress.  We can learn ways to practice managing those stresses.

How does stress feel?  Why does it happen?  Is it even useful?

The stress response is our body’s way of telling us to get to safety.  It gives us the action to find safety, fight or freeze until the danger goes away.  It has been useful for humans when survival was of utmost importance.  However, in our modern times, our stress response is activated when we aren’t really in danger, and that can cause some problems.

When the stress response is activated, that deactivates our brain.  When that happens it’s less likely for us to think, remember, make choices, listen, and control our impulses.  In this way it really does effect how we interact with people around us and even in environments where there appears to be no threat.  Over time, activating the stress response can have a lot of long term negative consequences on our health and well being.  Managing stress to activate a different kind of response, such as relaxation can help lessen the damage stress can cause on our body.

Here’s how you can start:

  • Identify what causes you stress
  • Notice the signs of stress in your body
  • Use tools (like deep breathing) to help defuse the stress response

In the coming weeks, look for more tools and commentary on handling stress,  being emotionally aware, self-regulation, and creating healthy habits.

Creative Connections Week 2

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Winter Trees, mixed media, 2015

Students began week two of my art and yoga program called “Creative Connections”.  The focus pose of the week was vrkasana, or tree pose.  It’s always a favorite, and everyone seems to know this pose no matter what.  This group was no exception and was very open to learning more about balance when we practiced yoga.

Why is vrkasana, or tree pose important?

Tree pose is a really good pose for a lot of reasons, but I think the main reason is because it allows us to practice a lot of different things within one pose.  We have to be patient, focused, and steady.  If we’re not, our body definitely lets us know because we may lose our balance.

Patience:  tolerance, acceptance, self-restraint.  Vrkasana requires a bit of determination. But it’s also about slowing down and being purposeful with your practice.  It’s not necessary to quickly pop up into tree. It’s important to slow down, notice what you feel, and adjust to make sure you’re not over doing it.  We may know how to do tree pose already and feel like we can balance, however, what knowledge do you lose by not taking your time and being mindful of how you got there?

Being patient also means accepting where you’re at.  Have you ever noticed how you feel when you do tree on the opposite leg?  Well, it may feel different, or you may not feel at ease on one side.  It’s ok, notice what you feel, accept that one side is different from the other and breathe.

Having tolerance is also an important part of vrkasana and all throughout yoga.  Yoga allows us to practice tolerance by being willing to participate.  There may be a time when your mind is sending you all kinds of messages to stop what you’re doing.  Coming back to your breath and realizing that it’s just tree pose, remind yourself it’s temporary, you will come out of the pose and move on to something else.  If you’re uncomfortable in tree pose, notice what you notice, be willing to adjust and practice what you can, knowing that the pose is there to teach you something about yourself.  Balancing is an action, and if you’re in the act of being in tree or falling out of it, it’s all part of the pose and the practice of yoga.

Focus:  centered attention.  Ok, I’ll admit it.  This is a hard one.  I like to look around the room and see what’s going on with everyone, just like the rest of us.  I get interested in what others are doing, I get distracted by noises and what’s going on in the environment.  It’s hard sometimes to be mindful only about yourself, because we care about so many other things.  Some of those things are even thoughts that keep us from focusing on our yoga.  So the next time you notice yourself looking or thinking, check yourself.  All you have to do is notice, call it what it is, and come back to the breath.  This focus can allow us to do really amazing stuff, not just balance on one foot on our mats.

Steady: stable, constant, unchanging.  When we first learned about steadiness, we talked about tadasana,”mountain pose”.  The reason why we started there was to use the simple act of standing to physically feel a connection with the surface beneath our feet.  We actively paid attention to how we were standing and grounded down through to bottoms of our feet so we could feel the whole foot on the floor.  In this way, we created a stable structure to build from.  When moving from your foundation of tadasana to vrkasana we still need to feel that constant to be able to balance on one foot.  To do that, we root down through our one foot, and actively pay attention from the ground up to the top of our head.  In any yoga pose you’re not only noticing your steadiness in the physical pose, but also your breath and in your thoughts.  Notice when your breath changes, or if thoughts come into your mind when you practice.  If it happens, just remind yourself to breathe, and come back to that.

At some point you may notice that practicing yoga mirrors what is going on in your life.  If you take some time to reflect on your practice you can use yoga as a tool to develop self awareness and to give yourself greater insight about the world around you.  Yoga has so many benefits, but the best benefit is that it’s for you.

Tree pose Fitz
Ms. Fitz practicing vrkasana, tree pose.

Om, the mantra*

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Om

Have you ever heard the word “mantra”?  Maybe you’ve heard it and had no idea what it meant, but it can be a helpful thing to practice.  A mantra is basically something you say to yourself, and saying certain things can actually help the brain. “Mantra” actually means “sound tool” in sanskrit, so it can even just be a meaningful sound.

You may have heard people in a yoga practice say “Om” or “Aum” at the beginning or end of a practice. Maybe you have been a little curious as to why people say it. It’s a really interesting sound that we don’t hear in the English language much… or maybe we do and it comes out like “um”.   These sounds have been studied and it has been found that saying “Om” can actually help increase awareness.

Sounds are a part of our memory. Just think about it. Can you imagine what “tires screeching” sound like right now? What about the sound of “fingers tapping on a computer keyboard”?  All of those sounds are a part of events that we can connect to. They’re not really sounds of nature, but our brain can remember sounds and what pictures might go along with them.

So, mantras are kind of like that. “Om” is a mantra.  It is said that sounds like “om” evoke movement of energy, and connects to nature.   It could be a sensation that you feel physically or even emotionally. You can actually feel certain sounds in different areas of your body as you say “om”.  Saying “Om” actually taps into a part of our brain that helps us concentrate and gives us a focal point to become self aware.

This mantra actually has three parts that flow into one another and create a smoothness between the three distinct sounds. So if we look at the mantra “Om” it actually as 3 sounds “A-U-M”:

A- (saying the “a” in the word car) your mouth is wide open and you may feel a vibration effect in your body

U- (saying the “ou” in soup) has a different effect that is more narrow and subtle

M – (buzzing sound) can make your whole head vibrate because the mouth is closed

The feelings differ from person to person. The shapes of our mouths, how relaxed we are, or even how we breathe can affect the way it sounds.  It still might be fun to try, just to see what you can notice. It’s good to be curious about it, and it can be fun to learn how to make the mantra work for you. The more you try it, you may be able to improve your mood because it has a positive effect on the nervous system. By practicing mantra we can become more self aware and have greater sensitivity to understanding the emotional and physical parts of ourselves.

So practice saying “om”.  See how it feels to you. Here’s a way you can start:

  1.  Find a comfortable seat, make sure you’re sitting up tall.
  2. Take a few deep cleansing breaths by breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth 3 times.
  3. On the next inhale in pause and then as you exhale say the mantra “om” slowly and fully.
  4. Pause for a moment.
  5. Take a deep breath in through the nose and as you exhale say “om” slowly and fully.
  6. Pause again.
  7. Take a deep breath in through the nose once more and as you exhale say “om” slowly and fully.
  8. Pause
  9. Come back to your regular breath and notice.

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*(Remember that you are your own best judge of what feels good.  If you feel uncomfortable stop at any moment.  This is only a suggested practice.)