This week, we return to the Yoga in Sanskrit. Let's explore upward facing dog, or Urdvha Mukha Svanasana (erd-vah moo-kah shvah-nah-sah-nah) and its cousin, Bhujangasana (boo-jahn-gah-sah-nah), or cobra pose.
Upward facing dog usually follows low push-up in the sun salutation sequences. It is a backbend and chest opener which invigorates and energizes the core of the body, encourages extension through the neck and chest, while warming the arms and grounding the hands.
Lower the chest back down to the floor, or tuck your toes and press the hips up to downward facing dog. Repeat as necessary. Take child's pose or forward fold to counter the backbend.
Upward facing dog is a back bend and heart opener. These kind of poses tend to increase energy when you're feeling sluggish. Opening the chest in this vulnerable position promotes openness to new ideas and tolerance of others. Think of it as the opposite of arms crossed over the chest, a position we sometimes take when scared, unsure, or dissatisfied with a situation. The depth of the breath will enhance these effects, so be sure to take deep breaths once your in the posture. Rotating the shoulders back and down away from the ears frees the neck to release tension and irritability. This pose creates mobility in the lower back and stretches the abdominal muscles, which strengthens awareness of the core of the body. Awareness of the core body can impact the depth of breath, release anxiety, and promote emotional strength and resilience when practiced regularly.
A heavy topic today, but an important one.
For those with terminal illnesses and their families, or those that have lost loved ones suddenly or at a young age, talking about death is not easy. Saying the words, "death... dying... died... will die" is hard. Death is final. We miss our loved ones when they are gone. We worry that we may die before we do all the earthly things we were meant to.
Because the language of death is hard to use, people will use other words.They may say "pass away, moved on from this life, or passed over" to describe death. These softer versions create the illusion of softening the blow and to ease social discomfort around the topic. Sometimes families and friends simply avoid the subject completely for fear of saying the wrong thing, upsetting one another, or because they can't find any words to use.
So why is death so hard to talk about? We are aware that it's inevitable, yet for many of us, it's easier to avoid the subject. In the documentary and book titled Being Mortal, physician Atul Gawande struggles with the death conversation with terminal patients. He states "death and aging are the things we can't fix." He realizes that doctors sometimes provide false hope to patients, transferring their own desire to fix things to their treatment protocols, even when deep down they know treatment is likely not to work. What is it about death that will cause even a doctor to deny reality?
Hospice professionals know that patients and families do better when they have a specific plan in place regarding directives for lifesaving treatments, living wills, last wishes, and priorities for how the last days and months of life are spent. Yet, these arrangements cannot be made if no one is talking about them. And even for hospice professionals, it's difficult to broach the death subject with patients and families who aren't yet ready to go there. Sometimes it seems like not facing reality is the compassionate thing to do. But is it?
Complex emotions accompany death. Counselors are well positioned to help people explore these feelings, ease the inherent discomfort of talking about them, and hopefully provide a safe place to make plans that make the dying process easier. Here are a few of the feelings we may have about death.
1. We feel afraid because death is scary. It's the ultimate end, and is potentially painful. The dying person must consider whether death will come slowly or quickly. They wonder if there will be physical pain in dying, and how they'll manage it. They wonder how their loved ones will endure the emotional pain of their death. And the dying person has their own emotional pain.
2. We feel responsible for comforting others. Even if we are grieving, we still want everyone around us to be ok, and to not worry. We may skim over details, minimize the negative, and emphasize the positive in an effort to save everyone's feelings.
3. We feel sad at the thought of losing a loved one or about our own lives ending. With that, regret, guilt, or remorse may surface as we consider the journey we've taken in life. We consider what we did well and what we didn't. We consider our mistakes, and maybe who we hurt along the way. We ask whether there is meaning in any of those experiences. We use our spiritual beliefs to answer some of these questions and make peace (or not) with ourselves. We use the same beliefs to make peace (or not) with our dying loved ones who may have wronged us.
Each of these feelings can be difficult to process.
The lack of language to describe feelings may likely be responsible for the lack of language to describe and prepare for death. By recognizing, expressing, and working through feelings about dying, a path opens to recognize and express the reality of death.
Counselors, social workers, pastors, and palliative care health professionals are great resources to use when faced with struggles of talking about death and dying. When individuals become more comfortable talking about death, they give those around them permission to be comfortable with it also. Feelings and attitudes are contagious, and can create a ripple effect of healthy coping.
Imagine yourself here on the edge of this lake. You have all day to spend here and you are trying to decide what to do next. How do you know whether you want to stay here at the edge, take a swim, or go to the other side? If you want to go to the other side, how do you get there? Do you go straight across, or go around the edge? If you want to take a swim, how long do you stay and what comes next when you're done?
These questions are a lot like what happens in the goal-setting process in life.
Why is goal setting important? Why can't we just drift about day-to-day doing what comes naturally at any given point?...Because humans are inherently goal-driven, and if you're drifting about without a goal that you can name, you may likely feel guilty, empty, or lazy.
And goals don't have to be monumental. They don't have to be pie-in-the-sky, dream-big kind of goals. They certainly can be, and I would argue that most successful people do, indeed, dream big. However, setting and reaching goals involves small, ordinary everyday accomplishments too. Here are four steps to mindfully setting goals that matter.
2. Define your expectations. Project into the future a bit, and use your imagination to create your best life. When you consider the values most important to you, how do you want to be living them out in 5 years? Imagine the specifics of your everyday life in 5 years. Who will you be with? What job will you have? Where do you live? What do you do for fun?
Now, take time to reflect again on the accomplishments you've already made.
3. Make a plan. And be sure you are capable of accomplishing it. Work your way back in time towards now, and identify what actions do you need to take now to reach your 5 year goal? What is likely to get in your way, and hold you back?
When making your plan, consider these important parts. What small daily or monthly tasks will help you reach your goal over time? What are the outcomes that you can measure to tell whether you've succeeded?
Now acknowledge this work you've done to make a plan.
4. Re-adjust your goal and plan as needed. It's the most important step! Re-adjusting, giving yourself latitude, being honest with yourself...these are all components of self-compassion, or simply stated, being kind to yourself. Self-compassion is what will keep you moving forward even when things don't work out how you'd planned. Because things are bound to not work out sometimes. Your attitude toward yourself in the challenging moments will shape how you feel about your goal in general. Self-compassion will keep you resilient and help you recover from setbacks.
And again, as you adjust your goals and plans, take time to reflect on what you've already accomplished. Praise yourself. How often do we say to ourselves, "I really did well today," or "I worked hard on this project," or "Even though I haven't reached my goal, I'm still a capable and worthwhile person and will keep trying." For most of us, not often enough.
I hope you can take these steps and use them to define your goals. Whether you want a new job, a new house, to start a business, to start a relationship, to deepen a relationship you already have, or really any other life circumstance, taking time to clearly define your goals based on your values will increase the likelihood you will reach them...and feel good about your efforts.
Kambria Kennedy-Dominguez, Counselor and yoga teacher specializing in mental health, substance abuse and wellness.