H20 Float Spa – Floating to Relaxation

float spaI first heard about the float spa from Beth-Anne.  The synopsis: you enter a large water capsule, close the lid and lie there in the dark.  I believe she may have referred to it as a nightmare.

I was like, “Oo, I want to try!”  And in honour of 4 Mothers’ reviews of interesting spas this week, I did. And it was really quite cool.

My local H20 Float Spa, conveniently located on Danforth Avenue, offers two float pods (with lids) and two open concept float rooms (large enough for a couple to float together).  I opted for the pod, which really is large water capsule with a lid, perhaps the size of a queen size bed, filled with 10 inches of water and filled with 1000 pounds of Epsom salts.  At this concentration (higher than the Dead Sea), the body naturally floats to the surface without any effort, which in turn is conducive to deep states of relaxation.

It was this selling point that got me: I am trying to meditate more, and was curious about doing so in the pod.  What would it be like?

The water in the pod is comfortable but not hot – you can’t float for an hour in water that is too hot.  It’s normally kept at body temperature (34 degrees) although when I mentioned to the attendant booking my appointment over the phone that I get cold easily, he increased the temperature a degree or two for my session.  I slipped into the water and immediately was buoyed up.

The attendant had asked me if I wanted cream to cover any cuts on my body, but I didn’t think I had any. Apparently I had small cuts on some cuticles though, and the high salt content of the water meant that the stinging was distracting enough that I buzzed the attendant (there’s a button in the pod for this) to request the cream after all.  I generously applied (and reapplied) this and felt better. (Luckily I hadn’t shaved before floating; I later learned this is not recommended because any little nicks in the skin will sting too.)  I also inserted little spots of wax into my ears; apparently you don’t want the salt water entering the ear cavities.

It’s possible to plug in music to the pod, which I think would be an amazing experience, but for my first try, I wanted just silence.  When I was ready, I reached up for the handle to close the capsule.  When the lid actually clicked shut over me, I had a moment of startled awareness of enclosure. And the sudden, completely absence of light. There was a subtle green glow in the pod when the lid was open, now with it shut, there was a short window of reddish darkness, and then just black darkness.  Pure sensory deprivation.

It was quite amazing.  Weightless, with absolutely no difference to my sight whether my eyes were open or closed, I began my mindful meditation practice.  With so little sensation, what was there was heightened.  I was very aware of the water, its temperature and mine, its texture on my skin (so very smooth), and also what parts of my body were covered by it or exposed. The sounds of my breath were intensified, and almost foreign as it got deeper. My mind wandered (it always does – my meditations are a work in progress), but there was very little external stimulus.  And I don’t think I have ever heard my own heartbeat so prominent and plain.

The one meaningful distraction was the periodic rumble of the subway that makes the location so convenient; in my sensitive state I could both hear and feel this.  I took this in stride with my meditation but could imagine a purer experience without it – some music might mask this beautifully.

I’m fairly sure I fell asleep and woke a few times.  Towards the end of my hour, my meditative state ended, and I very nearly opened the lid (although I didn’t – the lights came on just a few minutes later to signal the end of my session).  I began to wonder:  how much oxygen is in this pod, and was my breathing a bit more laboured than when I started?  In other words, I began to experience some mild anxiety. But I recognized this, and was not actually worried; I had just left my relaxed state.  I finished up with a leisurely hot shower in my floating room, and ended my spa with a hot cup of sweetened tea and an orange.

As Beth-Anne astutely observed from the beginning, the floating pod isn’t for everyone.  Even though there’s only 10 inches of water, I think you have to be really comfortable with water – no fear of it at all – to enjoy the experience.  Also, you have to be a-okay with the dark and small spaces (although it’s absolutely possible to float with the lights on and the lid up, but you’ll be missing the main experience of sensory deprivation).

If you are good on these fronts, by all means, give it a go.  I’m not sure I’ll become a regular, mostly because I rarely go to spas in general, but it was an unforgettable experience and a very good meditation session. The attendant told me that there are some excellent meditators who book three hour sessions. (I had asked him my oxygen question, and he explained that there is a filter inside the pod that is constantly monitoring oxygen levels and adding air so very long sessions are possible.)

And if the pod isn’t quite up your alley, the open concept floating rooms sound very accessible.  There were only couples in the waiting room when I was paying and wrapping up; a casual testimonial, I thought, that floating in the dark with your lover probably makes for an excellent date.  One thing is sure: you wouldn’t soon forget it.

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Getting on the Mat

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Along with basically everybody else, I have entered 2015 with a new resolve to take better care of myself.  2014 was a low point in this respect – I ate and slept badly, had regular stomachaches, exercised hardly at all (not even walking anywhere), and my back went out a couple of months ago when I was unable to walk for days, and has been sore almost everyday since.

I actually am so grateful to my body for this – it doesn’t suffer the stress I put on it in silence. It will complain, and if I ignore it some more, it revolts.

Change is needed, and I am trying.  Yoga helps my back significantly, and I love it.  It’s like a meditation for both the body and the mind, and unifies them.

I am, however, still in my life, so a daily yoga practice, though lovely-sounding, is looking kind of lofty.  So is any practice that is 90 minutes long outside the home (which was how I used to practice in a previous lifetime).  I’ve tried to schedule it in, but this doesn’t usually work for long.

So what’s a mother of three with an overflowing life to do?  I’m getting on the mat, whenever I can.

My resolve this year is to roll out my yoga mat whenever I think of it and it’s even kind of feasible.  I’m not looking for the hour-long window anymore, I’m just looking for a door that’s open a crack.  This means that I will do yoga with my children (not so meditative but still with benefits) and that I will do it even though I know the chances of finishing are low.

I do this because even if it’s short I can still stretch and breathe, and maybe I won’t be interrupted as soon as I thought.  Just getting on the mat, even when I don’t know how long it’s going to last, means practices that sometimes finish, but more often don’t – they end up being 22 minutes, or 12 minutes, or 33 minutes long.  They are compromised, yes, but at least they are happening.

It’s not perfect or even great, but it’s something, which is infinitely better than nothing.  Also there’s something to be said for even a modest momentum.  I’ve done yoga quite a few times in 2015, and noticed that I went swimming over the holidays, walked the hour home from work in the winter storm, signed up for a group yoga practice next month.

Those minutes add up not just to hours, but to a life that’s closer to what I want and need.  It helps my back; it just helps.  And it’s not bad for just getting on the mat.

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Mind Full or Mindful?

forest-67286_640To end this month of gratitude and mindfulness, a post on meditation seems only fitting.

Last month I met Jackie. I have been curious about meditation and spirituality for some time but it was a few months ago when I was absolutely exhausted that I succumbed to that niggling feeling of needing “more”.

I was so busy contorting myself to keep all of the plates spinning and the thought that something was missing seemed idiotic. Even I recognized that I couldn’t possibly toss another in the air and sustain life at the most basic level. And then this thought: what if I just let some of these plates drop?

I am good at following rules and I held staunch to the golden one: finish what you start. So you see, the mere idea of saying “no” was counter to my beliefs.

But what if . . .

The worst that would happen is that I would cut my feet. And cuts heal.

I felt like I had known Jackie my entire life, and about 30 seconds after exchanging names, we hugged. In that embrace I felt calm.

I know, I know. Insert eye-roll here.

Sitting across from each other, I dove into my story. I explained to Jackie that I felt as though something was missing from my life. I have all the material things anyone could want. I have health. I have freedom. I have it all. But that’s not enough. I want to enjoy it. I want to live my life without feeling frenzied, harried and EXHAUSTED! But what’s worse, I felt shame for even admitting that I wanted more.

I know, I know. (There may be lots of eye-rolling here.)

Jackie sat across from me, listening to every word I said. She nodded empathetically and when I was finished with my rant, she quietly said, “I relate to how you feel.”

Jackie started to explore her spirituality when she was my age and living a very similar life. She too was baring the responsibility of child rearing and being a supportive spouse; she was also felt that there was something more like what I described.

Thirty-five years ago, Jackie discovered the power of meditation and began in earnest to study Buddhism over a decade ago, which she is quickly points out is a philosophy not a dogma.

I tell Jackie that I am just dipping my toes into this new way of thinking, that I am reading Jon Kabat-Zinn and struggling to practice Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) and in this little time, I have come to discover that “niggling feeling” has quieted, softened.

Jackie nods when she hears this. She leans forward, her blond hair brushing her cheek, and I get a good look at her face. She is radiant. Her eyes sparkle, her complexion is clear and she is focused solely on me. She never glances to her phone or excuses herself to tap out a text message. I am struck by how infrequently these kinds of interactions are becoming.

“Originally my practice was based more on mindfulness until I discovered Vipassana; in Toronto I sit with Satipanna Insight Meditation Toronto.” Jackie goes on to describe a patchwork of experiences from sweat lodges in earlier years to silent meditation retreats that define her journey of spiritual discovery.

When I ask her what benefits she feels meditation brings, she is simple with her reply. “Learning to approach life with more calm, happiness and compassion.”

“You sound so enlightened.” I say this as a compliment.

Jackie looks somewhat aghast. “Oh no! I am just a beginner.”

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From My Book Shelf

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The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown Ph.D., LMSW

The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting: Raising Children with Courage, Compassion and Connection by Brene Brown Ph.D., LMSW

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Mindfulness For Beginners by Jon Kabbat-Zin

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Everyday Blessings: the inner work of mindful parenting by Jon Kabbat-Zinn

Mindful Parenting by Kristen Race, Ph.D.

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About Jacqueline Carroll:

Jackie has  has worked with both Asian and Western teachers.  Since 2001 Jackie has practiced specifically Vipassana Mindfulness meditation, supported by a Metta practice.

Jackie is inspired by her practice with various guiding teachers:  Sayadaw U Pandita, Burma, Sayadaw U Vivekananda, Nepal, Bhante Gunaratana, USA, Ayyang Ripoche, Ayya Medhanandi, Perth, Ont,  Ajhan Viradhammo, Perth, Ontario, Marcia Rose, New Mexico, Michelle Macdonald, Ottawa, Ont., Randall Baker and Jim Bedard, Satipanna Insight Meditation Toronto, Toronto, Ont.

To learn more about meditation please visit, Harmony Yoga Wellness

Mindfulness, Meditation, and Making the Most of the Day

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It must be about 15 years ago now that I went to my first yoga class.  I had finished law school and landed a job at the University of Toronto, where I would stay for awhile before becoming a litigator.  The Associate Dean of the law school was my supervisor, a bright light at the school whose work ethic and good judgment was jettisoning her career at rapid speed.  This type of life is predictably stressful, and it was she who recommended that I try yoga, because it had done wonders for her:  “It sounds cliche, but it’s transformative,” she said.

This wasn’t an endorsement that I could ignore so I went.  And shoot, it wasn’t transformative.  I just felt twisty and disconnected and wondered what the deep rumbly noises all around me were (ujjayi breathing).  In other words, I had no idea what I was doing or why, which kind of means that I really wasn’t there.

Gratefully I tried again, with a very good friend who introduced me to an Indian teacher from whom she first learned in India, and who she continued to follow when he moved to Canada.  And the classes were, well, transformative.  It was my first real foray into meditation, or less loftily, simple calming the mind (I’m pretty sure he would not call those classes meditation by a long shot, but it’s me writing the post).  My body was doing all kinds of interesting things, but focusing on one’s breathing for an hour and a half (even when it’s raggedy and you should cool it a bit with the pose), is profoundly restful for the mind.

Mindfulness is a pretty catchy term, which is always a signal that one should explain what one’s definition of it is.  For me, it means being more awake to my surroundings and my choices, to live more intentionally.  I have been doing this for quite a few years now, sometimes with great success, and sometimes not.  At the moment, I am operating in a less successful window.  I could cite some reasons, but why bother – I’m just (over-)busy, much like you.

But if my hold on being mindful were stronger, I would know that it is precisely during such times when meditation and a calm mind is most needed and most helpful.  I woke up yesterday really feeling like a shift was due, and set my sights on a 30 minute window for a mindful meditation.  An unexpected turn in my husband’s schedule eliminated this possibility; I was with my 3 year old until the end of the school day, when I’d have my boys on my own until bedtime.

I’m vulnerable to being plowed under when best laid plans like these don’t materialize, but in one of my better moves, I noticed that the weather was clear and warm-for-fall, and my boy and I went outside.  I finally set up the cages for my mushroom logs (best-tasting mushrooms ever, by the way) to keep the darn raccoons away, and the neglected garden got some attention, with some of it put to bed (not the kale though, it’s still going strong). We were outside for a long time, my little guy sometimes helping me, sometimes doing his own thing, almost always talking to me.  We worked.  I worked, but I stopped often to see his centipede, or to find the wet hat lost in the summer, or to pick chamomile.  We came into the house hungry and happy and settled.

It was not a meditation, but it was mindful, and it felt like a breather for an over-active mind.   I was active and productive at home, and yet the world slowed down for me, and the conscious choosing of my time felt grounded and right.  The benefits felt similar to those from meditation, and I’m so glad that I didn’t give up on mindfulness when my allocated 30 minutes of meditation slipped away, because there was still a whole day remaining.

It won’t do for the purists I know, but maybe meditation or at least its benefits can come in different forms, and maybe it’s not quite elusive this way.  A walking meditation maybe, a listening meditation, a gardening meditation, a playing meditation.  Just actually noticing where you are and making the most of it meditation.

Yesterday this happened.  Today is a new day.  I’m going to try.

Meditating with Pattern-Making

690Meditating and me, we just don’t click.  I can remember lying in bed as a child, struggling to fall asleep, and trying to count sheep.  I never even made it to ten before I’d be off track, imagining a wolf hiding behind a fence, waiting for his lunch, thinking about what I myself had had for lunch, and would there be any mango left over for lunch tomorrow, and thinking about how Soandso had sat with Whojimmywhatsit again, and my mind would be off racing.

Fast forward to adulthood, and I have the same problem of extreme distractibility as soon as I am supposed to immerse myself in concentrating on nothing.  I’ve tried and failed to empty my mind so many times, and as much as I love a challenge, I do not like repeated failure.

This past summer, though, as I was hunting for how-to books for making art with my kids, I stumbled upon a series of books about pattern-making called Zentangle.

The Zentangle Method is a way to create images by drawing structured patterns. It was created by Rick Roberts and Maria Thomas, who found that she entered a meditative state as she drew her tangle patterns.  According to their web site, Zentangle began when Maria described “her feelings of timelessness, freedom and well-being and complete focus on what she was doing with no thought or worry about anything else.”

And it really is an all-absorbing, relaxing and fulfilling way to focus on something while thinking of nothing.

Carol told me recently about a tip someone had given her about how to occupy herself while sitting keeping her kids on task doing homework.  You know how sometimes, when you are sitting with your kids while they are doing homework and you get the urge to stick a hot poker in your eye just so that you can have something else to think about other than how much you’d like to escape?  Grab knitting needles instead.  It is more productive and less likely to end in bloodshed.  Knitting, once you are past the absolute beginner stage, is a brainless and soothing way to keep your hands busy when your mind has to be occupied.  Knitting also has the enormous value of giving you something in return for your effort, and at the end of the homework session, you will both have accomplished something other than screaming.  Drawing patterns has become that something for me.

Productivity is part of why I fail so spectacularly at meditation.  Believe me, I do get the irony of wanting meditation to be productive, but let’s face it, it’s not like I have lots of time to devote to getting it right.  I struggle and struggle and in the end I feel that I have wasted my time and energy and emerged with nothing, but not the nothing I was supposed to be aiming for.

Doodling patterns gets me into that totally focussed state of mind, gives me a feeling of well-being, and at the end of a doodling session, I have an image to show for it.  That is enormously satisfying.  I am working my way through doodling the letters of the alphabet.  This is what I made while the kids did math:

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If you’d like a quick tutorial on how to make one of the Zentangle designs, grab any old sheet of paper and something to draw with and follow along:

 

 

Mindfulness and Holistic Heart Health

2012_03 - Florida 189aWith February being Heart Month, here is my heart health checklist for last week:

~ exercise:  two (kind of short) yoga sessions, one skating trip with the kids, and a considerable effort scraping off the ice from our walk.

~ food intake review:  lots of legumes, steady flow of fruits and veggies, sugar remains a food group most days.

~ love and friendship:  lots (lucky me).

~ mindfulness:  5-10 minutes at school council meeting.

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But that’s what happened, I swear.  Two teachers came to our monthly parent council meeting and, as part of their presentation on the mindfulness that they seek to bring into their classrooms, they asked parents to participate in a guided mindfulness exercise similar to what our children are doing at school.  Every one of us stood up, closed our eyes or kept them softly focused, and breathed and moved our bodies together.

I don’t know what your school council is like, but ours is active and strong and fueled by passion around holistic education which, as it turns out, means different things to different people.  The energies parents bring to the school are often positive and productive, but as with any concerted effort, we have bumps along the way.

Last week’s meeting was no exception but I’ll tell you this:  breathing and swaying my arms alongside dozens of people who had not convened for this purpose, was a surprisingly powerful experience.  For those few minutes, we were unified:  not just in our hopes for our children’s education, but in our own bodies and minds.  A frequent tagline for holistic education is that it embraces the head, heart, hands and spirit equally, but as parents we still often operate primarily in our minds, especially at meetings.  It was a beautiful thing, if fleeting, to move into our hearts for a change, and to do it together.

My heart health could be improved by more exercise and a better diet, but I’ve got some momentum in those areas, and these things can’t alone create holistic heart health.  Last week’s school council meeting reminded me that what my heart might need most is greater openness and softness, through the mindful practices that keep us grounded and patient and present.  I could cite evidence of the benefits of mindfulness and meditation on heart health, but for now I’d rather focus on how it feels.  Simply, my heart liked it, and so I resolve to give her more.