Make Art. Cats Do

It’s winter in Iowa. An odd winter, but winter nonetheless. No snow to speak of; temperatures vacillating wildly from single digits to 40s and 50s. Yesterday an ice storm hit, but today temperatures in the 30s have melted it all away. No winter wonderland for us; we’re yearning for sunshine or snow to color gray winter days. I’m not the only one in the house with cabin fever.

Slipper Art by RosyThe cats have started doing art projects. This morning Rosy created the slipper piece, artfully arranging one of her catnip toys in my sheepskin slipper on the carpet by the front door.

Food Art by SilviaSeveral days ago my daughter sent me a photo of her cat Silvia’s work in her food bowl.

Tater continues to refine a fiber piece on the arm of our favorite brocade chair, in spite of consistent and considerable discouragement. Art Critics!

I have a book called Why Cats Paint: A theory of feline aesthetics. I tried to get my cat Bitsy to paint a number of years ago, with limited success. Cats are famously independent after all.

Bitsy and Martha paintingShe did check out the pastels and help me watercolor. I’m pretty sure I have some samples of her work tucked away in my drawer for refrigerator-quality projects. But now that Silvia and Rosy are showing real promise, I will definitely be organizing some cat-friendly studio space.

If cats can make art, we certainly can! Get over any fear that you “can’t draw” or that you’re “not creative.” Get out that yarn, those beads and baubles, tissue paper, scissors and brushes. Clear away the clutter and paint your world. It may be winter, but we don’t have to be stuck with gray and white!


Clear Boundaries. No Limits

Art is unique in requiring that hands and mind be in the same place. Distraction and anxiety are at the forefront of challenges for Des Moines Art Center Outreach students. Art class provides opportunities for quiet, focus and mindfulness.

Color Me Calm

Last week I sat in a meeting and listened to a group of adults talk about how much they hate the holidays. It made me a little angry. I believe we have choices about how we experience the world, and that staying in the moment allows us to enjoy life to the fullest.

I also understand that our culture puts a lot of pressure on people during the holiday season. We may be asked to spend time with family or friends we don’t really like that much. We may not have family to spend the holidays with.

We may feel the need to find just the right gift for someone we don’t know all that well, or someone who is hard to please. My siblings and I finally settled on giving our dad gifts of exotic food; we could never find a pair of slippers that fit his size 13 feet.

We may compare our contribution to the office potluck to those of others and feel less than a great cook. Or maybe there is no office potluck to contribute to. We’re surrounded by requests, from the bell ringers to the TV ads.

Well, I think it’s time to take a moment to calm down with a coloring book. According to this article, coloring generates quietness, creativity and stimulates our brains. I was an anti-coloring book mom, but I admit to having lovely memories of lying on my stomach on the floor coloring many a Disney princess as a kid.

I also loved paper dolls but they aren’t nearly as calming as coloring. All those little tabs. Yikes.

I looked at a few options for your coloring needs. From the blatantly zen Color Me Calm to the entertaining Bun B’s Rapper Coloring and Activity Book to the clearly cynical Unicorns Are Jerks. Lots of fun choices; some I wasn’t willing to highlight on this site! Ten Bizarre Coloring Books for Adults offers even more  choices for your gift list.

Laughter is always good for releasing stress, lightening up and brightening your day. But Carl Jung, a very wise psychologist recommended coloring for releasing stress. He had his patients create mandalas, circular designs originating in India.img_5178

Retreat to Akumal

Akumal is a sleepy little resort just about an hour south of Cancun, Mexico. It’s the perfect place to relax, do some yoga, go snorkeling and explore the underground–the cenotes.

I fell in love with Akumal last February. It’s kind of an old hippie village, friendly to those of us who have un piquito Espanol. Or none at all. The restaurants are international and the fish is fresh as can be. After a week, I could totally see returning for more. More sightseeing, more time sunning on the beach and of course more time doing yoga!

As fits the setting, Akumal has a more relaxed and musical approach to yoga than you may be used to. However, it’s founded on strong principles of alignment, and the teachers are very knowledgeable about anatomy, sequencing and philosophy. I got some excellent feedback on the mysteries of my bodily misalignment.

Michael J. Stewart 3Michael J. Stewart is  master teacher at Yoga en Akumal, and during the off season he teaches across Europe, Russia and Morocco. I just happened to get to Akumal when Michael was teaching a workshop. It was a lovely adventure, and we celebrated the closing with a group dinner where I found him to be an engaging spirit as we discussed everything from Hindu philosophy to John Friend.

Michael quotes Patanjali who said ‘to perform the yoga asana “boat posture” simply to get a flatter tummy is indeed, missing the boat.’


Get Happy!

Burmese art students at the Des Moines Art Center“We’re happy!” declared the Burmese refugee group as they finished their Des Moines Art Center tour on May 8, 2014. This was the culminating activity of their four-week art class. According to the ELL teacher at Lutheran Services in Iowa, “many elderly clients are dealing with vision, hearing and general health problems. Some have endured torture and malnutrition… Many … have had no schooling in their own country…”

The language barrier makes it difficult to know much more than this about our art students but we can tell that some have formal art training, and we know that several were weavers before they came to the US. They often use English letters and numbers in their designs, as well as images from their native lands. Art is proving to be a universal language.Batik of Roses in a Vase

This spring session was the third one for several of the refugees, some from Burma and some from Bhutan. People in both ethnic groups arrived in the US after many years in refugee camps. It’s hard to imagine an environment more different from south Asia than Iowa.

We focused on batik during the spring session. It is a universal medium; every culture around the world has developed an art form based on a resist process. The medium brings out the refugees’ love of fanciful designs and bright colors.

The First Unitarian Church will host an exhibit of the class’ work in July. The Church is prepared to collect a donation from anyone who wants to purchase the artwork. Proceeds will be used to purchase personal art supplies for students in the program.

Become an Embodied Being

“Your body is a temple of the holy spirit,” I think that’s one of the few catechism teachings that made a real impact on my life. It’s made me hesitate to get tattoos, though I do have some “nasty piercings” as my daughter calls them. Since I started practicing yoga about four years ago, that catechism passage has become more meaningful to me.

We are embodied beings. The path to harmony with nature and fellow humans is at least in part through physical discipline. To create serenity and contentment, we must nurture and respect our bodies. Too many of us (some say 90% of women) do NOT respect our bodies. We think we’re too fat even when we’re too thin. We yoyo diet and don’t get enough exercise.

“Be the Change in Your Body” is part of a series of Thursday evening dinner discussions at Christopher’s Restaurant. Join us on January 2, 2014 for a discussion on changes that happen to our bodies, with or without our permission. What it takes to accept those changes and the power they have over our self confidence. We’ll explore what it means to be embodied beings, to nurture our spirits by keeping our bodies healthy. We’ll discuss our relationships with food, and the ways we move our bodies to enhance our lives.

“This body of ours is a temple of the Divine”

Katha Upanishad, Hindu tradition

Just Sit There

Next Step Adventure is offering “Be the Change,” a loosely connected series of Thursday evening dinner discussions  at Christopher’s Restaurant beginning January 2, 2014 with “Be the Change in Your Body.” Register here for one event at $30 or register and prepay for all five events for just $125 ($25 discount).

Our February 27 session will focus on mindfulness. The more formal aspect of mindfulness is meditation. To be honest, I do better in moving meditation.

Walking, swimming and art are three of my favorites. In Sweat Your Prayers, the late Gabrielle Roth reflects on her nearly forty years of teaching personal and spiritual development.

Since I’ve been practicing yoga, seated meditation comes easier to me. Breath is one key. Observing your breath leads to managing it, then moving with it. Finally in savasana, we let our breath breathe us.

I’m excited to be making some progress in seated meditation–I can now sit comfortably for 20 minutes or so, without getting squirmy or falling asleep. Quite an improvement. So what?

So, it turns out meditation not only helps us handle stress but actually changes our brains and our bodies. As I age, I become more and more committed to maintaining my mobility, both physical and mental. My mom spent the last three years of her life literally vegging out in front of Animal Planet.

At her graveside service, I imagined God requiring a certain amount of stillness. Because she never stopped working, being busy, she had to make her quota all at one time. I plan to get my sitting done in a less painful way.

I just learned from Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight that staying in the present moment happens in the right side of the brain. “We are the life force power of the universe.” That’s what this neuroanatomist learned from having a major stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. She believes that through focusing in the right hemisphere of our brains, we can project peaceful energy into the world. Talk about an idea worth sharing!

We’ll touch on all of these aspects of mindfulness, and some others as well on February 27 at the “Be the Change” dinner discussion. We’ll focus the discussion on being fully present in life through meditation, putzing, art and yoga. Whether through formal or everyday practice, mindfulness improves mental health.

Mind the Gap

“Mind the gap” was the theme of the John Friend yoga workshop I attended a couple weeks ago. The message is that what happens between, is what’s important. Between inhaling and exhaling. Between the busy-ness and the being-ness. Between the effort and the letting go. The subways in London warn you to “Mind the Gap.” In NYC, you are to “Watch the Gap.” Not nearly as poetic, nor as relevant.

Watching implies seeing, but if you mind something, you do more than just see it. You pay attention. You listen. You ponder what it means. You take responsibility. You mind the children. You mind your parents. The dictionary says you “regard as important and worthy of attention.” That’s exactly what Friend had in mind at “Dancing with the Divine.”

I’ve been practicing yoga at Shakti Yoga Shop for nearly two years. It is an Anusara shop, and John Friend is the founder of this particular branch of yoga. His visit to Iowa was a chance to learn from the guru. I went with a certain cynicism. My expectations were low, but he was amazing, and far exceeded those expectations.

Friend has a quirky sense of humor, and a depth of knowledge about a broad range of astrophysics to zoology. One of the funniest bits was when he gave us a physical demonstration of how humans are the only critters with shoulder muscles. The message was clear. We’ve got them so we need to develop them. He talked quite a bit about what we do with our bodies has a nearly immediate effect on evolution. Our genes remember our behavior.

On that Saturday afternoon, Friend talked about the increasing weight of the self-help book section addressing mindfulness. It’s a good thing, but these books usually focus on minding what you are doing or what’s happening. If you’re minding the gap, you’re paying attention to what’s not happening. On the resting. On the being, not just the doing.

Friday morning when I called my mentor, I was in a dither. The condition of the house was interfering with my serenity in a big way. She told me “go outside. Not to do something, not to make a list of what you need to do, just to be.”

I sat down in my hammock, with my phone still to my ear, and immediately felt the weight lift. Pat said she felt tears come to her eyes, hearing the relief in my voice. I minded the gap. First I had to create it. Then I paid attention to it. I lay down and looked up at the bright blue gap between the Locust and Pin Oak trees above me. And I minded it.

Afterwards I was able to return to the busy-ness of the day, to put things away, organize the house. And I was able to find some more gaps and mind them too.

Salute the Sun

Yesterday I did 108 Sun Salutations with about a dozen other women at Shakti Yoga Shop. It was challenging, but went by surprisingly fast. One of the first things we asked was the significance of 108. The answer took up about 3 pages, and included–

…which brings us back to saluting the sun. Winter solstice is less than 2 weeks behind us. It is my favorite day of the year: it marks the day when daylight begins to lengthen. I can only imagine our earliest forbears watching the dwindling light and heat, fearing it was the end of the world, developing ceremonies and bargains to make the sun return for a year.

We continue many of those traditions around the holidays. Lighting candles, bringing in greenery, putting up Christmas lights. On this first day — 1/1/11, I hope for a lighter year, for peaceful, brighter days. I hope for clarity on the problems facing our planet. Perhaps by saluting the sun, still the source of life, we can perhaps begin to mend the earth.

Practice Yoga

I lost a dear friend a month ago, and what I thought was a lifelong relationship fell apart the next day. To say the least, I was reeling for about a week. The first morning after the breakup, I went to yoga. Paula met me with a box of tissues, saying she had seen my Facebook status change to “single.” She found me a spot in the back row and told me to just do whatever I needed. I practiced my yoga and cried off and on. Afterward, one of the other students listened with sympathy to my tale of woe.

I have practiced yoga most days since then. It’s making me strong, inside and out, and I am becoming part of the kula. I’ve enjoyed dinner, breakfast and coffee with other members, and am feeling a closer bond with everyone. I’ve long preferred to attain spiritual growth through physical practice, and yoga is again confirming that preference. During 2010, my “year of good health,” I’ve lost nearly 20 pounds, and developed a much healthier body image. I’ve become stronger, more balanced and bendier.

I tried a couple of places before I settled on Shakti Yoga Shop in Des Moines. The instructors focus on Anusara Yoga, and offer two to three classes a day most weekdays, and at least one class on weekend days. I love the continuing encouragement, the small corrections that help you get the most out of every pose. Next month I plan to attend my first workshop, and take my practice to new levels next year. If you are in need of a “year of good health,” try yoga in 2011.