Written by Jeff Shoaf
March 30th, 2013
Off the mat: Fairview, North Carolina
I left Bloomington, Illinois a week ago Saturday, to drive down to my dad’s home just outside Asheville, N.C. I usually manage to travel there a few times each year, to spend quality time with dad, who has lived in a retirement community since 2007, and lately to make some long overdue improvements, repairs, and maintenance on his hand- crafted house and 53 acres of surrounding lands.
My routine for departure is always the same: rising at four in the morning, leaving by five; dearest Debra and I always exchanging kisses on the forehead, cheeks, and lips, with whispers of ” I love you, I’ll miss you, and lets talk later in the morning”. I then head out for the half- day’s journey in the dark, taking the jagged path alternately east and south to N.C. ( there is no direct “as the crow flies” route from Bloomington to Asheville” ).
This is trip number four in about as many months. My truck was loaded with the usual things I knew I’d need for the trip; good drinking water, snacks, a couple of good audiobooks, adequate tools for the tasks ahead, appropriate clothing, various devices for communicating with the virtual world, and a huge ziplock bag filled with what at first glance appears to be spaghetti, but is really just a very poorly organized assortment of cables, connectors, and chargers. The chosen attire is almost exclusively for the down and dirty work to come, but I also make sure I pack for play; play taking the form of hiking in the woods and mountains, visiting with friends in the area, and attending an occasional yoga class at my favorite studio in nearby Black Mountain. What usually happens though, at least historically, is that most of the “play clothes” never seem to leave the suitcase……
My three previous excursions down here were wrought with the burden of all the responsibilities I accepted on the family’s behalf when we moved my dad from his home of forty years to Highland Farms Retirement Community: those being executor of the trust, power of attorney, planner, and caretaker of the estate. Though I willingly and without hesitancy took on these tasks, it was obvious all this “stuff” had of late become too overwhelming and now, stressing me out big-time. There were simply too many things to do and not nearly enough time, money, help, or connections to move forward in the way I knew I must. I wasn’t sleeping well or eating properly, and I hadn’t been making time for my personal yoga practice.
When I am there at our family home about ninety five percent of my time is devoted to working on and coordinating multiple tasks here at the property, plus making time for evening visits with dad, who turned eighty two last December. He has Parkinson’s and dementia; afflictions that has left his body like someone twenty-five years older and the mind of a person seven decades younger. This frequent commute between the farm and retirement home is a forty mile round trip. So all that said, there’s never that much time for “YOGA”. Our property, which includes amazing pastures, forests, a mountain top, and gorgeous views of a super sweet part of Western North Carolina always consumes as much time as I will allow; time for making the aforementioned repairs and improvements. But this time, there was another pressing agenda…,that being to prepare the house, barn, and twelve of our fifty three acres for sale; funds that would be designated to support dad’s continued health care. A little more about that…….
About a year ago, he had to be moved from independent living to assisted living, then after a brief stint there, on to fully- skilled, twenty four hour around the clock care. As I am sure many of you who may be in the same boat with aging parents are aware, now our resources were beginning to dwindle. His health care costs, just for the facility and care, never mind medicine, laundry, and additional therapies, settled in at just under 7500.00 per month. It’s just one of those mathematical exercises in number crunching that is better not dwelled upon too long, if you know what I mean. So, taking about a nano- second as I contemplated this staggering sum of money, I discovered not only was there TIME for YOGA, this was the absolute BEST time for YOGA! And, if I was going to survive, I had BETTER be doing some “YOGA”. In the Kripalu and Pranakriya traditions, the real YOGA is the stuff that happens “off the mat”. The time spent preparing happens “on the mat”, it’s our “PRACTICE”. The “off the mat” portion ( ninety-eight percent of life), is it’s “APPLICATION”… So, how did that show up for me? How does one do “YOGA” without a mat, without a studio, without a “teacher”? Well, here is some of the “HOW….”
Reflecting back now to just before my departure….
I vowed to set an intention (“sankalpa” ) several days before leaving Illinois; ” I AM NOT going to let all this get to me this way, not this time, not like before”. And I shouted it out loud just to make sure I heard “ME” ! To hammer this deeply into my viscera, I connected with my third chakra; the will, the seat of intention, to keep a steady resolve to do the things that mattered. This included making time for bodywork, for attending at least one yoga class with my favorite teacher, for visits with dear friends, and to approach this seemingly impossibly long list of “to do’s ” with full breath, patience, and compassion for doing the best I could. Oh yes, and vow to save enough of myself to show up at the day’s end with a smile for dad and to insure our time together would be meaningful. To this I added a firm commitment to trust in the divine that all would be resolved with a positive outcome. Aren’t all things resolved, at some point in time, anyway? Have they ever not been?
Fast forward now back to N.C. :
So the first morning after my arrival, I awoke in the quiet peace of the magical mountains and forest with only nature as my companion. I did my usual ritual of preparing and enjoying a substantial cup of freshly brewed coffee from my favorite local roaster. But then, I abandoned part two of “the ritual”. I did NOT immediately load the NY times onto my iPad and settle in the doom and gloom of “life” as it’s reported to be, out there in the world. I went instead to my zafu, and sank right into a silent meditation. Maybe it was that all conditions for enlightenment ( however brief and fleeting) were suddenly and instantly met. The blissful supporting environment of nature, the quiet, the space, the ujjayi breath… But, what happened after some time was a surge of blissful energy that lit up numerous and long neglected parts of Jeff’s ” neuro- circuitry switchboard”. This matrix of pathways, those 72,000 or so “little rivers”, or “nadis”., those channels that when blocked, bring the healthy flow and exchange of life force energy to a halt were waking up! The message was unmistakeable! It was like finding my long lost best friend in life. ME! This revealed a loving reminder of the essential lesson of making a conscious and persistent vow to stay the course, to practice, and be ever present to the immediacy of” LIFE”.
And from that moment up to this one, my commitment has sustained this practice of adhering to a sincere “media fast”; (that’s “FAST”, as in without, not “FEST””, as in total absorption). I am not sure what or if there was a catalyst that created this shift of awareness, or exactly why I chose to do this at this time. There was no conscious plan, well not a plan crafted by my brain anyway, but one created by my heart…..
So yeah, I vowed to bring a halt to media consumption; no newspapers, no television, no radio, and no Facebook; well, almost no FB….. (yes Jeff, remember satya,truthfulness), only an occasional and very brief perusing once a week to make sure my daughter in Japan is still alive, well, and happy.
And, so how was I going to support this commitment? With another one; a promise to sit, breathe, and meditate daily without fail, and let the asana happen out doors, coming in the form of yard work, landscaping, painting,cleaning, and purging years of stuff accumulated by dad, a depression era baby, who never, and I mean NEVER, threw anything away.
And now back to the way the media had been affecting me, and perhaps for you too….
Have you ever paused to take note of how totally negative the media is ? Could it be true that their number one mission is to keep us all as miserable and unhappy and distracted as possible, disguising their “news” as something that is SO important, something that if we were to all to have that “aha” moment and suddenly choose to ignore, then we might just as well go out in the backyard and shoot ourselves? I mean, let’s face it, there are countries in the Middle East and Asia that are trying to develop and experiment with nuclear weapons. And then there is poverty, the war on well… ,just about everything, with a success rate of absolutely zero, the stagnation of our political machine, you know, all these problems we can really do something about, say over our lunch break, or some other time during the seventy hour American work week….. But alas, I digress…..
Suffice to say, studies show that on any given day, about ten out of twelve stories in the news are negative in nature, and if you do read the NYT, one of the twelve positive stories is likely to be “YANKEES WIN !!! ”
So, why would the media do such a thing, want to have us focus on such things? Perhaps to keep us in control, fearful, distracted, worried, i.e, not present, so we feel overwhelmed and then unable to devote time to more of the things that really matter; the things we can actually do something about…
I imagine at this point of my manifesto, some might be saying and thinking ,
” Wow this guy is, well, like totally an ostrich with his head jammed way deep in the sand”. But guess what…, this actually feels more like that moment in the classic book ” Song of the South”, when Brer Rabbit finally is freed from the Tar Baby’s clutches…..
Okay as promised… on to the connection with yoga. One of the major components for maintaining a powerful yoga practice is the element of” Prana”. This energy, this life force, is being created within us all the time,flowing through those open pathways, those “little rivers”, the” nadis”. But to simply generate prana is not enough; we also must hang on to it. In his book “Yoga for Transformation”, Gary Kraftsow discusses in a few paragraphs the topic of human potential. He states, ” as yogis, our desire is to become an expression of wholeness”. He mentions that the ancients saw that even with that “inherent potential for wholeness, they were also keenly aware of the obstacles that keep us from it”. The skill set required here is to learn how to create, manage, maintain, and retain this life force . For prana to be the most beneficial, it needs to move throughout our entire being, not just the physical self, that outer layer known as the “anamaya kosha”. Remember yoginis and yogis, we are comprised of five layers, or sheaths. The concept of leaking prana applies to all layers. Truth is…, we all have the ability to create more than enough energy all the time; boundless energy in fact, and yes, even when we have just turned sixty (that would be me) .
But by spending mountains of time getting lost in sensationalistic journalism ( is this an oxymoron?), staying absorbed with the lives of others on Facebook, some of whom we don’t even really know, and perhaps can’t even recall how, why, or if we ever friended them……, we lose valuable energy, time, and focus. We could instead be doing our practice, which could take a mere half hour for a bit of pranyama and morning meditation, or even just one very breath- infused round of surya namaskar. But hold on. Wasn’t I just about to go online and buy that adapter for my new iPad so I could spend a few more hours trying to figure out another bit of technological whiz- bang that I might use for a couple of times before deciding I didn’t really want or need that thing anyway? Maybe if I get it and don’t really have time to use it, I will take it down to the Florida house when we go next year…… and mess around with it down there…… Did I mention digression….?
Okay, so maybe I am mistaken to think that doing these kinds of activities can cause everyone’s prana to leak out. Perhaps that’s an assumption best not made. I have realized though, that it really does effect me, really does needlessly waste my valuable time and energy, really does causes me to feel either bad, bored, restless, or all of the above, and REALLY DOES reek havoc on all of my five sheathes; destroying that inner- most bliss layer, anandamaya kosha .
So, to recap…, I began the media fast on March 23rd while in Asheville, started writing about it on the 30th, and now I am back home in Illinois and its three months later that I pick up the keyboard to begin the final editing. That means it’s been quite a while since the” fast “began. And guess what? I am still not “hungry”. I have, since my first day back in the south,” ya’ll”, continued my meditation practice, with a commitment to focus on a more intentional, compassion based lifestyle, to apply myself more fully to all things worthwhile. I am now discovering ways to expend much less effort on trivialities, applying more and more of this life force to communing with me, with nature, with people. I now notice I smile more often and remember the importance of saying hello to passersby on the street, savoring the moment by moment-ness of life, finding I have more than enough prana to spare, prana that allows me to continue this practice, this yoga, this union, off the mat…..