Morning meditation

Sparkly sunset on the James.

Sparkly sunset on the James.

My poor, neglected blog! One sure thing about a personal blog: it only gets updated if you update it. I have a backlog of pictures, guest posts, and wonderful horse books to share. But time remains finite, and I guess I always find ways to spend my time other than here.

Back in February, I started a new job. After working remotely for ten years, it’s an adjustment going into an office every day. One outcome of that switch is that I overhauled my daily routine so that I start my days spending my time doing things that I love: yoga, meditating, writing.

That way, every day starts out as a great day! Continue reading

Reading On Yoga and Riding

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One of my first riding instructors always started our lessons with yoga stretches in the ring at the walk. Pigeon, half-camel, mountain – all versions of yoga postures, modified for the saddle. This routine not only prepared our muscles for the tough work of up-up down, down-down up (you know what I’m talking about!), and excruciatingly long periods of holding our two point, but also brought us closer to our horses and more aware of our own breath. The more I learn about riding and about yoga, the more I see how the two can inform and support each other. Here are some of my favorite books on yoga and riding:

Yogafor Equestrians
Yoga for Equestrians: A New Path for Achieving Union with the Horse by Linda Benedik & Veronica Wirth
Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2004 edition
ISBN: 5706-136-1

Riding draws upon physical strength, balance, and flexibility. Breath serves as a powerful communication aid with the horse, and concentration is an essential practice in the saddle, the field, or the barn. This book includes a great section on breathing as the bridge between body, mind, and horse and guidance for a yoga practice in the saddle and on the ground. There are super explanations about visualizing your power center and a yogic approach to horseback riding. What I love most about Yoga for Equestrians is its practical guidance in Chapter Nine Establishing Your Practice. The entire book gives specific routines and sequences; Chapter Nine breaks the postures down into little packages for warm up, transitioning, at the stable, at a show, and after riding.  I almost always practice the Yoga at the Stable sequence found on page 149 right before my lessons. When I don’t, I notice a difference in how my body feels immediately when I start to post.

Whoa-Ga! Eight Limbed Yoga for Horse/Rider Harmony by Cathy Kan’dala Reynolds
Publishing Works, 2006
ISBN: 933002-30-1

Of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, I’m most engaged with three in my daily life: postures, breath, and meditation. Yet, the eightfold path offers insight and discipline in riding as in life. I love that Who-Ga! is organized in eight sections corresponding with the eight limbs of yoga: Yama (Internal Ethical Disciplines), Niyama (External Ethical Disciplines), Asanas (Physical Poses), Pranayama (Breathing), Pratyahara (Sensory Control/Withdrawal), Dharana (Concentration), Dhyana (Meditation), and Samadi (Blissful Absorption).   Studying on the first limb (Yama) includes five disciplines non-violence, honesty, non-stealing, study/training, and love toward all. Chapter Six, which covers Dharana/Concentration, addresses ways to improve the skill of concentration (ours and our horse’s) through arena exercises. The book includes a robust section covering postures on an exercise ball, on the floor, and standing postures, too. And, Who-ga! not only explains postures on the horse but yoga FOR the horse, too. Who-Ga! encourages riders to embrace the eight limbs of yoga as a basis for a leadership philosophy with horses.

Yoga on Horseback
Yoga on Horseback: A Guide to Mounted Yoga Exercises for Riders by Nicole C. Cuomo & Marty Whittle
Alpine Publishing, 2006
ISBN: 978-1577790808

I’m so sad I’ve misplaced this book, and it’s out-of-print right now. Usually, ABE Books is a good source for hard-to-find titles, but no luck. Yoga on Horseback is a brief but thorough introduction to balance, breath, and postures on horseback for riders of all levels. Even though I can’t find my copy, I’m including this one here in case you ever see it at a rare book store or Friends of the Library sale. Here’s a good interview with the book’s co-author, Marty Whittle, on her system of Equi-Yoga.

Zen and Horseback Riding
Zen and Horseback Riding: Applying the Principles of Posture, Breath and Awareness to Riding Horses by Tom Nagel
Ko-gen Publications, 3rd ed, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-9749213-2-7
Tom Nagel opens this little spiral bound book with an explanation that it’s neither a book about horses nor Zen meditation. Zen and Horseback riding, Nagel explains, “is about seeing horses and riding as a Way, becoming an activity of self-development and spiritual training. It’s about improving one’s life as well as one’s riding.” In addition to explaining techniques for improving the relationship to the horse through posture, breathing, and awareness, the author really educates riders on the location, use, and health of the all-important, oft-ignored psoas muscles (pronounced so-az). The writing is logical, straightforward, and easy-to-understand. It’s not a book to plow through but to integrate. Take this for example, from page 94: “If a rider focuses on a particular object, his horse will respond in kind. If a rider holds his breath, tension in his body will be communicated to his horse. A tense body cannot move freely and will interfere with the movement of the horse. When horse’s response isn’t desired, it is important for a rider to look to his own posture, breathing and awareness first, before looking to this horse.” Words worth reflecting on.

Zen Mind Zen Horse by Allan J. Hamilton, MD
Zen Mind Zen Horse: The Science and Spirituality of Working with Horses by Allan J. Hamilton, MD
Storey Publishing, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-69342-565-0

A practical guide and an inspiring work, I’m tagging Zen Mind Zen Horse as a yoga book because of its exploration of breath, self-awareness, and suggestions for physical exercises connected to breath. It’s also a useful handbook for grooming, tacking up, trailering, and basic horse care. I’ve been reading this book for months and trying to also become more aware of myself around Angel (the mare I ride in lessons) and Albert. The idea of breath awareness always seems so simple that you might wonder why we even talk about breathing right or noticing our breath.

So, here’s an example of how the book is helping me. Recently, I was giving Albert a bath. He was really dirty, and I realized that this was going to take a lot longer than I planned. I started to rush. He started to dance around a little bit. I got nervous. I moved away from Albert, leaving a good bit of space between us, and stopped talking to him. He picked up his back right leg and held it there. Now, I noticed that foot hanging there, poised for SOMETHING and the thoughts jumped out: Whoa, what’s going on with him? Why would he want to kick me?  My mind returned to Zen Mind Zen Horse. And now I noticed that I was holding my breath. So, I stepped closer to Albert, placed my hand on his croup, and let out a big sigh. I returned to nice, even breaths. “You’re okay,” I said to him. What I probably really meant was, Hi buddy, I’m back. I’m okay. Not rushing you. And, he dropped his foot and we had an incredible afternoon just being together. The magic offered in this book results from the practice of being present to yourself and your horse. There are great illustrations also and a very comprehensive bibliography for further reading.

Solidarity for a Regular Life

I’ve started this post three or four times. Isn’t it hard when you have something important bubbling but can’t find the awareness you need to make sense of it?

I am wondering about solidarity. I’m sure theologians and sociologists could offer an academic explanation of terminology and framework and concepts. I am wondering about solidarity for a regular life. I think solidarity is standing with some specific kind of suffering in the belief that joy will soon come. In my Christian way of thinking about it – solidarity is witnessing Good Friday with faith and anticipation of the peace of Easter.

So, what I’m struggling with is this: how much of solidarity is action? how much of solidarity is prayer or contemplation? are sort of transcendental acts of solidarity [like wearing a bracelet to remind you of someone, like dedicating your yoga practice] as powerful or more powerful than simple, intentional acts? Does any of that really matter? Is it your heart that matters?

What’s going on in my mind has something to do with feeling like I need to be more present to Albert. Most of the time, I feel pretty good that I am doing what I can do. Mostly, I feel like a responsible horse owner. He lives at a great place. He is well cared for. He loves his field mates. The farrier and the vet take good preventive care of him. I am working extra hard to afford him because I brought him into our family ten years ago and this is where he belongs.

BUT. Is that enough?

What’s going on in my gut has something to do with feeling helpless about the Gulf. Most of the time, I feel solid that I am doing what I can to reduce our family’s dependency on oil [and coal, too, because we love our mountains]. Mostly, I feel nice and green. We drive a hybrid. We grow food. We turn lights out and buy wind power off-sets.

BUT. Is that enough?

What’s going on in my heart has something to do with feeling like I, too, have left the rebuilding and recovery of Haiti to no one. Sometimes, I rationalize that I do enough by talking about Haiti, by giving modestly to the American Red Cross and Partners In Health.

BUT. That is not enough.

One person can’t do everything.

Remember that starfish story? A little kid is walking down the beach, where there are thousands of starfish washed up. The kid knows the starfish need to get back in the water or they will die. So, he starts chucking them one at a time back into the sea. The boy passes a man, who tells him, “There’s no point to what you’re doing. There are too many starfish to save. You are hardly making a difference.” And, the boy picks up a starfish and throws it into the water. “It made a difference to that one,” he tells the man and continues on, doing what he can do.

So, maybe, doing what you can do with a loving heart is solidarity for a regular life. I know these things are important to me: being Albert’s companion, being a better citizen of the earth, and being a part of the solution for Haiti. There are few things more things I can do, then, with a loving heart:

    I can get out to see Albert at least once every week and spend time with him. I can help my daughter get out there once a week, too.
    I can write a letter to my congressional representatives asking about the long-term plan for Haiti.
    I can call a family meeting to make a plan for reducing our oil/gas/coal usage even more. And, I can also sign-up with Audubon to help the Gulf birds recover from the BP disaster.

Nooks and Crannies: 21 Days of Yoga and Writing

21.5.800 Member

I discovered Bindu Wiles and her 21 days of yoga and writing project on Twitter. We’ve never met, nor have we spoken, but I love writing. I love yoga and, for me, these two passions are so connected that I couldn’t resist participating.

It’s funny. I came to yoga about ten years ago, after a horse accident that cracked my sacrum. The horse, ironically named Achy Breaky, and I both were pretty green. I was working crazy 80-hour weeks trying to get SeniorNavigator (a resource for family caregivers and older adults) launched, so I was shy on sleep and way-shy on good judgment. Achy and I were cantering around and it felt too fast for me. My legs were loose and flapping all around. I was probably squeezing the reins like mad. I remember thinking to myself: after we get around the corner, I’ll bring him back to a trot. Well, we got around the corner and a guy came out from behind the tack room beside the ring with a fishing pole, heading down to the pond. Achy freaked out and I was on the ground wondering how I got there.

Horse people can act very macho, you know. I gave my body a quick scan. I hurt, but I could walk. So, I did the right thing and got back on Achy to finish the lesson. Did I say I did the right thing? Yes, I did the right thing for my ego. I rode through the rest of the lesson – jumping and cantering around. And, when the lesson ended and I dismounted, I knew I had done exactly the wrong thing for my body. I could hardly walk. I literally could not sit, so I worked for weeks lying on my stomach or my side in the bed, with my laptop. My physical-self changed dramatically from that day. I could no longer run without pain and found that I my back needed kindness and gentleness more than anything. (Self-care has never been a strength of mine.)

A few months later, I started doing yoga with Rodney Yee videos. I hoped yoga would build up my core and improve the strength in my upper and lower back. Really, I think I hoped yoga would let me get back to “normal.” Pushing myself too hard. Demanding more and more when sometimes, my body clearly needed less. Yoga has its way of taking care of all sorts of injuries and it has its way of seeping into all the nooks and crannies of a life. My yoga practice has definitely made me stronger in my core. But, in those nooks and crannies, yoga has filled me up with a greater capacity to be kind and gentle with myself, with my family, with the earth.

Still, it is called practice. Kindness and gentleness take practice. Self-care takes practice. My yoga practice has grown over the past decade from a body-oriented practice into one that is beginning to incorporate breath, meditation, and reading. Beginning. With horses and yoga and writing, I feel like I am always beginning, always practicing.

For the last few years, I’ve been drawn to linking my yoga and writing practices together. I think a lot of yogis and writers are beginning to practice and explore how yoga and writing complement each other. I am lucky to have worked with the poet and dancer, Cheryl Pallant. When I was writing the first draft of a middle grade novel (which is in production), Cheryl created yoga and dance meditations to help me attend to the playful voice of the main character. We explored how crisp, staccato revision-movement is different from wild, untethered first-imagining movement.

This year, I started working with with Richmond yoga teacher, Dana Walters. She recently put together a pretty amazing practice for me that evokes where I am in the process of writing of a historical fiction novel. With this story, what I think I need is endurance and a deeper awareness of how each chapter relates with the next and the next, all leading to this transformation, this change by the end. Dana’s practice frightened me in some places because I had to do new things like turn upside down, like really expose my heart. Practicing on the mat gave me the courage to practice reaching into those places on the page, too.

So, that’s why I love what Bindu Wiles is doing with 215800. For me, this is a challenge to attend to the nooks and crannies of body, mind, and spirit. 21 days to build a habit for a lifetime.

A Sense of Place

View from House Mountain

I am a big believer that books can mostly be written in the space of time stolen here and there from a busy life of parenting, working, running around like a crazy chicken. Twenty minutes on a Tuesday night…four hours on Saturday…two and half on Sunday. We can train ourselves to make good, creative use of a focused hour’s walk by the river or a fifteen minute drive without the radio. I can just about work through an entire first draft sneaking off into these little writing pockets.

Rockbridge County, Virginia

For me, there does come a day with every book where I need to go off to the mountain. With ten miles of good trails, a fireplace in every room, poor cell phone reception, hearty breakfasts, and amazing dinners, I have found my perfect writing place at House Mountain Inn. House Mountain itself inspired the setting for Chancey of the Maury River (Candlewick Press, 2008) and Macadoo of the Maury River (Candlewick, forthcoming). House Mountain makes a beautiful place to ride, to walk, and to breathe deeply. The mountain offers a still and quiet place to be alone with a story.

House Mountain Inn, Rockbridge County, Virginia

House Mountain Inn Entrance

I saw my first belted kingfisher at the base of House Mountain. One summer on a hike to do my daily yoga practice on top of the mountain, an injured and dying spicebush swallowtail landed on my leg at about mile 2 of the hike and rode on my shorts all the way to mile 3. I have learned more about wild turkeys from hiking around House Mountain even than I did from my granddaddy. For me, it’s in encountering these little things – kingfishers and butterflies and wild turkeys – that my characters find grace or resolve and that chapters settle into a natural rise and fall that illudes me in the regular world.

The family who runs the inn takes good care of their guests; they let me hike the mountain with their Redbone Coonhound, even. They don’t really mind that all I do is walk around the mountain thinking and then hole up in my room for eight or ten hours at a time. What I treasure most about House Mountain Inn and the Irvine family who run it is that they care enough about House Mountain and outdoor people to keep the mountain natural and undeveloped forever.

House Mountain Conservation

Since 1966, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation has been working with landowners in partnerships that honor both private property rights and public stewardship. VOF holds almost 500,000 acres of protected land in Virginia, and almost 2,000 acres of Big and Little House Mountain are in a conservation easement with VOF. While I love knowing that for the next fifty years I will be able to go to that mountain whenever I need to connect with something both beyond and inside myself, I love even more that this place belongs to the kingfisher, the warbler, the turkey, deer and bear and it will, forever.

Lost and Found

Albert Grazing

Albert Grazing

This morning, I met a good and dear friend for coffee in Carytown. We shared a quiet conversation – in tone and in heart – about loss and the continuity of personality during and after loss. Since my friend and I last enjoyed a really good sit down together, we have both lost someone precious to us. For both of us that someone held decades long layers of our personal history – threads that no one else saw, or felt, or touched.

Over lattes and banana bread, we wondered together: How does loss change our future? Can it also change our past or the way we recall our past? Who are we now?

I am thinking of Albert and his loss. Who is he now?

To me, he’s remarkable. One year after losing his eye, we’re cantering again. He has gamely gone on short trails with me. He is, I have thought for a while now, back to his old self.

I learned, again, this weekend that he is a changed horse. Learned is probably the wrong word; learned implies a completeness and a finality, and this lesson is one that I seem to revisit too often. Maybe, I am learning that like any of us after some kind of loss, Albert is emerging into a new self.

We count on Albert to be calm, steady, and reliable. After all, he taught therapeutic riding for sixteen years. On Saturday, he had a little melt down during a bath when the barn crew pulled the tractor up near us on his blind side.

Looking back, I wonder why didn’t I just unhook him, turn him around, and let him watch the tractor? Instead, using a firm and deep voice, I more or less demanded that he chill out.

A long time ago, a friend tried to teach me to play squash. I am hopeless with eye-hand coordination and kept missing the ball when I swung the racquet. My buddy started yelling at me to relax. “RELAX. JUST RELAX. YOU CAN’T HIT THE BALL IF YOU’RE SO TENSE.” Did that help? No, of course not, yet I think this is the same way I responded to Albert’s tractor freak-out. RELAX, ALBERT. IT’S JUST A TRACTOR. YOU KNOW WHAT A TRACTOR IS; CALM DOWN.

He couldn’t see the tractor, but he could hear it coming closer to us. Clipped into the wash stand, Albert had no way to get his right eye over there to check out the ruckus. Because he is Albert – dependable, quiet, Albert – I expected him to just deal.

But, he is a changed horse.

How have I not changed along with him? Have I been waiting for him to “get back to normal,” instead of helping him create a new normal that considers who he is after the loss of his left eye?

I know it is a bad idea to get yourself into a girl vs. horse situation, so I did eventually end the bath and walk him over to the tractor. He stood there for a minute giving the crew the old hairy [right] eyeball, and he was fine. This situation needed Albert Yoga – not striking a pose, but sinking my heart into a deeper awareness. In the moment, I didn’t find it. Maybe, I have I found a new place inside me that is ready to stretch out to meet the new Albert where he is instead of where I want him to be.

Busy Mind

The physical practice of yoga makes me strong and bendy. I feel close to the wind and sky when I practice outside in my yard. The fading scent of Winter Daphne is a strong motivator for inhaling.

At the barn, I hold King Dancer and hold Albert like he is the wall. With no fear of falling out of the pose, because my horse has my back, I breathe deep and look around. There on a high, dead limb climbs the red-headed woodpecker – my favorite.

See, the immediate and sensory rewards of yoga postures keep me practicing. It’s the deeper practice of yoga – the yoga of still mind and easy breath – that challenges me.

I have a busy mind. I forget things. I forget to uncrinkle my brow. I forget where I left my shoes. I forget to breathe. I rush, I skim, and I move on to the next task sometimes unaware of the task I’m in right now.

But is life really to be made of up tasks?

Saturday morning, busy mind went with me to the barn. The sky was blue, the sun was out, the woodpeckers were pecking, and my mind was racing. I had exactly one hour and fifteen minutes to spend out there. I needed to get home, shower, and dash back out for a meeting.

I showed up late for my riding lesson with Levi, a black Appendix with one sock. I rushed through grooming him. I bonked my head against his when I lifted his foot. I brushed most of the crud off of him, but our turnout mightn’t have won any awards. Busy mind had me moving fast, yet falling behind.

I got Levi tacked up with just ten minutes left to ride before my trainer’s next student. We agreed to skip my lesson. I would ride Levi in the covered ring alone.

Levi’s a good guy – a calm horse, an accepting horse. He doesn’t hold a grudge, and he knows his job. He’s twenty, and he still possesses the athleticism of the eventer he once was. Levi did everything I asked him to do, just like he always does. He went where I wanted him to go. He turned in pretty circles. He halted, and he backed, and he responded to every aid…except the gas pedal. He did everything but go fast enough, and busy mind wanted the fast Levi to show up on Saturday.

Levi plodded along. Only one of us was working in this trot, and it wasn’t Levi. I posted faster. I loosened my hands and lightened my seat. I checked my contact; I collected the reins.

Hurry up, I thought. I’ve got places to be. Go ahead; get to it. I gave him more leg.

Slow down, he seemed to tell me. What’s hurry up? You’re here right now, aren’t you?

Go! Horse! Go! I tried to say in every way I knew how, without clucking. No clucking at Levi allowed.

Slow down, just slow down.

Frustrated, I gave him a loose rein while we walked, and I tried to figure out a new plan. I took in my first good breath since waking, and then I took another and one more because I like the smell of horses. I patted Levi on the shoulder, collected my busy mind, and we moved into a nice working trot.

Levi knows his job; he did everything I asked. Levi seems to know something about yoga, too.