Three years ago this month I lost my father. The official cause of death was lung failure. He’d been hospitalized for three weeks battling a severe case of pneumonia with lungs weakened by heart disease. Three years and three months ago I wrote the first draft of my book Twelve Mindful Months. I started in November 2009, with that month’s chapter, and each month thereafter writing one month at a time. It made sense to create it that way, since that’s how my readers would be reading it, but it was also easier to think of each month’s challenges when I was actually in that month. However, I would not have predicted that my pre-chosen theme for February would have such a personal impact. February is National Heart Month: to bring awareness to the public that heart disease – not cancer – is the number one killer of women, as well as men. While many people reduce their risk by eating healthy, exercising, losing weight and quitting smoking, most ignore another important risk factor: stress reduction.
For years, I, like many others, thought I could run away from my stress, and was dependent on cardio to release it. I was a runner who also took pride in teaching hard core aerobic classes – as many as ten per week. This practice delivered a strong heart and lungs but it also resulted in over-use injuries of my knees which 25 years later, forced me to give up running and jumping and all high impact activities. Cardio exercise IS good for strengthening our heart and is a healthy way to release stress, and yes, we do feel more relaxed afterwards, but it doesn’t teach us how to handle stress the other 23 hours of the day when we’re not exercising. We need a mind/body practice as well. Luckily for me, 18 years into my group fitness teaching career I found yoga, and was able to access those “feel-good” endorphins without cardio and more importantly, be able to take my yoga practice off the mat and into my world. In other words, be able to be calm, present, and focused, even in times of stress and distraction. Sometimes we don’t want to do a practice like yoga, T’ai Chi, journaling or meditation because it feels too slow or we don’t want to face our feelings. But all those mind/body practices teach us tools that we can use to give us personal power: being able to control our thoughts through cognitive over-ride so we can stop the madness, that constant ticker tape that runs through our head, and be able to focus on the breath and peace we can find within, even when the outside world we live in is chaotic. It takes practice and patience, and like learning anything new, sometimes we will slip back to old habits, but with consistence, those times become fewer and farther apart.
When my father died, I’d already written the draft for February and I‘d been immersed in writing about mindfulness for several months. I believe it was what helped me get through the difficult time. Journaling and tears released the grief that wracked my body, and being in nature soothed my soul. As I muse about this today, which would have been his 82nd birthday, I remember his last birthday and Valentine’s Day spent in the hospital, and his passing on the 16th. It was the dead of winter in Connecticut, but it seemed to suit the occasion. I wrote his eulogy with the guidance of my husband and together we walked the cold and icy streets practicing, I speaking aloud as he encouraged me to keep going even as the tears flowed. “Each time you hear yourself it will get easier to say,” he said. And it was true, but it took many neighborhood blocks. At the funeral, I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, and see my knees shaking involuntarily as I sat in the first pew awaiting my cue to deliver the eulogy. I don’t ever recall being as wrought with nerves and fear that I would break down and cry uncontrollably as I felt that day. Then I did the only thing I could do. I took my mind off where I was, I retreated inside to my breath and began to slow my breathing and heart rate down. After several minutes I felt calmness in this sanctuary. My name was called and I walked up and stood behind the podium. I heard my voice; clear and strong as I began my delivery. Feeling strength from within that I didn’t know I had, I was able to laugh at the humorous parts and actually make eye contact with family. Perhaps dear Dad was blessing me and encouraging me; certainly I felt his loving presence there in his church, the one he’d attended since childhood. But my mindfulness practice had catapulted me to a new level. I’d put it to the ultimate test. The recollection of the sound of my father’s struggle for breath near the end of his life reminds me of that daily need we don’t take notice of or have gratitude for until we can’t get it.
“Do what you like; like what you do.” I found this popular saying taped above Dad’s computer screen. It surprised me that he had put it there. Let’s be serious; we don’t always like what we’re doing. Or where we are. Or maybe even who we are, or the body we’re in. But if we can make the most of each moment, seeking the good, focusing on nature, the breath, our senses – being mindful – we will find acceptance in what is, where we are, and who we are, and there will be less stress and more space for peace and love in our heart and in our life.
Love Your Heart/ Love Your Body