In this week’s blog I would like to offer a personal story that I hope will instill a perspective from which yoga practice can flourish. Although this account is of an extremely sad time in my life I have now accepted the circumstances, and feel that sharing may provide some help to others who may be going through something similar.

In 1997 and 1998 my family was stricken by tragedy. The sudden passing of my Mom at 55 years old from a massive pulmonary embolism from a broken leg, and then several months later my Dad succumbing to cancer at 57 years old, led me to seek grief counseling to try and make sense of the most profound losses I have ever experienced. The grief counselor helped me understand that the anxious feelings and sense of imminent mortality was commonly associated with what she called compound grief. I worked hard weekly at learning about how to wrap my head around what was a most terrible year. At the end of each session my grief counselor Pam looked me in the eyes and said earnestly, “Be gentle with yourself.”

In retrospect I realized that this message was to be applied in every facet of my life, and certainly in the practice of yoga. Yoga at this time became a spiritual life-raft and I learned to practice in a way that I could be gentle with myself.  I had been performing yoga postures for years before Mom and Dad passed away, but had not really understood what it meant to practice yoga. As a younger man, to me yoga posture practice meant pushing to the edge and achieving the next pose. So for the first 15 years of the 35 years I practiced yoga I just didn’t get it. I had to teach myself to be gentle with myself.

There was a shift in my consciousness after 1998 as I began to view the world from new perspectives. I had a lucid dream in 2000 where my Dad came to me and gave me one of his loving bear-hugs like he would never let me go. I cried in his arms telling him I knew this was a dream but it was sooo great to see him again. We talked for what seemed at the same time, forever and the blink of an eye, and then he had to go. As he floated up to the heavens, I remembered suddenly I had a very important question to ask. I quickly said, “Dad, I forgot to ask you a question. What am I supposed to do with the rest of my life?” He smiled and said, “Love… just love.” My eyes were full of tears and I was feeling immense in emotion as I awoke. I recognized how strongly this dream affected my conscious awareness, and I was able to reflect back in time appreciating the profound love my parents had for all those around them.

It came to my attention that at my Mom’s memorial service an astonishing number of community members attended, and many told stories of how my Mom helped out in our community from the ‘Wheels on Meals’ program and the ‘Long Term Care’ program to mentoring struggling youth to a wide variety of volunteering. You might look at my Mom as a Karma Yogi in the context of her insistence upon actions of selfless duty. The minister who took care of my Mom’s service took my Dad, my Sister and I aside to express to us that she had never seen as many folks attend a memorial service in all her time at the church.

My Dad’s passing was not sudden as he had fought that damn cancer for a decade, and yet even though it was incurable he lived 8 years beyond the expectations of the doctors. Dad had adopted the positive attitude medicine formula, and it seemed he was able to find it effective until it became impossible to stay completely positive with Mom’s passing. At Dad’s memorial service work friends spoke of his insistence upon helping others, and I was reminded of the similarities between my parents when it came to selfless duty. This is most reflective of the true essence of Karma Yoga and integral to the practice of yoga in its authentic context.

Yoga must be practiced with compassion and taught with the intention of selfless duty. Instilling kindness toward oneself first and then outward to others becomes the meaning for performing yoga postures. The best advice I have for anyone practicing yoga is the same advice I received from Pam so many years ago at the end of each grief counseling session, “Be gentle with yourself!”

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