I recently had the privilege of practicing yoga with Bonnie Avett Rini, and found her to be a very knowledgeable and compassionate teacher. We’ve had an ongoing, lively discussion about the benefits of yoga and the mind/body connection. I believe her insights will be thought-provoking and beneficial as we all seek balance in our lives.
March 31, 2017 – Put Yourself on Notice
Hello, my friends! It’s been far too long since we last met. Life is moving along, with lots happening in our homes, our communities, and our world. As quickly as it’s all changing (yet remarkably still the same, when you get down to things), I often feel as though I’m being flung from one space to another, one thought to another, my hours and days and weeks becoming a blur. As intentional and mindful as I aim to be, it’s still so easy to shift into autopilot mode during such times – trying to keep up with life’s pace is exhausting, and I sometimes find myself letting routine rule the daily business of being. Mindlessly grabbing a bite to eat, carelessly carting kids from point A to point B, absentmindedly cruising through everything from brushing my teeth to grocery shopping to kissing my children goodnight. Thank goodness for perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve learned through yoga:
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Most yoga classes begin with an invitation to “notice your breath.” A breath/body connection enhances the physical and mental benefits of yoga practice, and the perks don’t end on the mat. Proper breath can calm your nerves, help you think more clearly, even bring better sleep, and it all begins with noticing. But it’s also about much more than the breath. Yoga encourages awareness of placement, which improves posture and keeps a body physically safe on the mat as well as off, during everything from reading a book to running a marathon. Further, a deeper practice allows us to recognize our thought patterns and reactions, our joys and pains. All this observation is bound to reach into other aspects of our lives; I find myself noticing potentially unnoticeable things all the time!
For instance, spring’s first storm arrived the other night, and it was a doozie! Intense lightning, booming thunder, torrential rain, and so much hail it looked as if it had snowed. We hunkered down, hoping to escape the significant property damage of hailstorms past (we’ve been through a few roofs and several dinged, even totaled, vehicles down here in SC). Hard not to notice, right? What I didn’t expect to notice the next morning, as I stepped into the kitchen and looked through the windows to the back yard, was the absolute beauty of the landscape in the wake of such bombardment. It left me awestruck. The sun seemed brighter, the sky bluer, the grass and leaves so vividly Technicolor green! Oh, how I do love a pretty green! Nature stopped me in my tracks and reminded me of her exquisite artistry, how she nourishes the earth and brings forth such stunning panoramas. Standing in my kitchen that Wednesday morning, I could have easily gone about my duties, emptying the dishwasher then heading out the door to teach, never seeing or feeling the delight of that view. Thankfully, I noticed. (And I talked about it all day, to anyone who would listen.)
Noticing isn’t always pleasant. With heightened awareness comes realization of pain and limitations, struggles and suffering, and plain old annoyances and irritations. During my daily drives, for example, I notice so much inconsideration it is nearly maddening. I am keenly aware of so many drivers’ disregard for anyone but themselves, the clueless cell phone user, the lack of proper turn signaling, the cigarette butts flying out of windows. I notice these things, these potentially rage-inducing moments, and then I notice my breath. I breathe, and I remember to be mindful of my own driving, for I am surely not always so perfectly considerate myself. On the yoga mat, I notice stiffness or pain where there was none before; I acknowledge the discomfort, then I explore ways to alleviate it. At home, I notice myself micromanaging my family’s actions; I catch myself, and I take a step back. Noticing allows me to see the need for change, in turn stirring me to make that change.
Couldn’t we all do a little more noticing? Noticing beyond ourselves, to the sights and the sounds around us, for good and for bad, for pleasant and for unpleasant? Yoga has helped me put myself on notice. It’s what helps me remember to breathe deeply instead of shallowly, smile instead of frown, give thanks rather than hold grudges, and treat my body with care. Noticing pulls me out of autopilot and gives me freedom to see the world around me as it exists in the here and now. I become aware of how I’m holding myself, aware of the beauty or pain surrounding me, aware of others’ actions. Noticing is awakening; awakening is enlightening; enlightening is inspiring!
September 19, 2016 – Stripes and Plaid
Hello, my friends! My thoughts on yoga this go-around were inspired by my sweet-spirited son’s recent outfit choice. The family was dressing for a Sunday morning church service, and Gabe emerged from his room in this shirt and shorts combination:
Pretty cute! A little busy, perhaps, but certainly appropriate in my eyes, as his clothing was clean and hole-free. Plus, he took the initiative to get ready on his own, which is always a great thing for an eight-year-old. We let him wear the outfit and didn’t say a word about it—well, other than the “stripes and plaid, eh?” comment that dear hubby, Nick, made to me in passing. As you can see from the photo above, this wasn’t the most currently “socially acceptable” arrangement of stripes and plaid (there are lengthy online discussions regarding this particular fashion statement, which call for one pattern subdued, one louder, colors coordinated, etc.). This is not the first time Gabe has made what some might call “interesting” or even “tacky” wardrobe choices. He’s done it before, as have his sisters, Karma and Izzy. We’ve come to expect colorful fashion statements around here, even as they become fewer and farther between, as our kids grow older and the pull of tween and teen peer groups prevails. I tend toward non-conformance and my soul is somewhat rebellious by nature, so colorful and un-conforming clothing choices don’t faze me in the least; on the contrary, they often delight me. It pleases me when one displays his or her individuality, regardless of what others may say or think (my family lives in a traditionally conservative southern state, so we’ve received more than a few remarks as to whether or not our children’s apparel “matches.”). To be fair, Gabe is young, and he may simply be oblivious to the comments his clothing could elicit, but think of the freedom such unconcern can offer. What if we approached our yoga practice with such non-caring?
Non-caring during yoga practice? Absolutely! Yes, there are aspects of a yoga asana practice that require deep care, such as alignment and body awareness in postures, mindfulness and the breath while moving through postures. Key words in many yoga classes are “focus,” “aware,” “notice,” and “observe.” However, we also hear that yoga is not about judgment or competition, and here is where our conscious concern does not serve us well. Early in my practice, I let ego influence my postures, attempting poses that aggravated my low back, in order to “keep up” with the instructor or the video or my own lofty expectations. My yoga in those days centered on the pose in the mirror and an outward sense of awareness, a focus at odds with the union of body, mind, and spirit that makes yoga so effective and beneficial. With time, gaining more knowledge of technique and variations of postures, it became easier for me to let go of vanity and allow each asana practice to evolve from the inside out. Now, for instance, instead of struggling and wincing in pain when I’m in a class reaching for their heels in full camel pose, I ease off the posture, keeping my body upright and lifting my heart for an invigorating chest opener. Sometimes I’ll take a different posture altogether, dismissing any nudging reservations I may have about standing out or going against the grain. When leading a class, I urge students to do what works best for them; I take no offense at all when I see someone going in a different direction, whether that means easing off a posture or moving towards a pose of greater intensity. Some folks are perfectly comfortable expressing movement this way, but many either shy away or simply “follow the leader,” without connection to the true self. I encourage you to be true to yourself, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually; discover and follow what works best for you and your body. In other words, don’t be afraid to break the so-called “rules!” Often, these rules are assumed but not actual. It may take time and trust to be our original self, but the resulting feeling of liberation is so very worth it.
One great benefit of yoga is freedom: freedom from tension, freedom in movement, freedom of the monkey mind and freedom in breath. Be you. Be true. Be original. Find your yoga in freedom of expression; live your yoga in stripes and plaid!
May 26, 2016 – Springtime Scramble
Hello again, friends! Spring is in full swing around here, and new life and growth is all around us. It’s a fast-paced season; so quick to fly by, in fact, that sometimes I feel as if I’ve been set adrift like pollen on a swift spring breeze, swirling through life and settling in a place far from where I began. All sense of focus and direction is gone astray, and while I enjoy springtime immensely, I can quickly become overwhelmed by the inspiration, new possibilities, and soul-stirring awakenings the season brings. There are just so very many things I want to do! The list begins modestly enough: a little spring cleaning, some home organization, that raspberry pound cake recipe I’d like to try. I’d also like to explore my yoga studies further, maybe tackle our sun-faded front door with a refinishing job, and volunteer more at my kids’ schools, with all the fun end-of-year activities. Maybe I’ll book those violin lessons I’ve been thinking about, or even try horseback riding with my daughter Izzy, plus I’ve always wanted to look into beekeeping, but I’m also really interested in keeping chickens. As my agenda grows and tasks pile higher, I soon become panic-stricken and confused, my mind bombarded with the “how?” and “when?” of my newly acquired projects, yet here I am, hunched over my phone, investigating the harvesting and processing of chinaberry seeds to craft into jewelry…
Clearly, I could use some focus. As eager as I may be to attack these activities and more, none of them will ever be completed without a sense of priority and mental clarity. Choices must be made, and order must be attempted, but how? Our modern lives are incredibly full of opportunities and information; discerning the clear path for our best self can become next to impossible when overloaded with variety. In addition, the “extreme” nature of our society (home makeovers, fitness, and couponing, to name a few) puts enormous pressure on us to seek perceived perfection in an imperfect world. We are constantly urged to excess in all areas, young and old alike. Our children are expected to seek professional levels of expertise in sports, music, and dance. Our homes, yards, bodies, and cars must be luxuriously presented and immaculately maintained. It’s enough to take anyone over the edge, and I intentionally and consciously resist this way of life every single day.
So how does yoga fit into all of this? For me, it’s a useful and necessary piece of my life-coping puzzle, fitting nicely with other segments, such as reading, prayer, healthy food, and time spent in nature. Breathing and releasing in Child’s Pose, for example, brings a calmer, more focused feeling, as the outside world is left behind and I surrender to the present moment. Striking a solid Warrior II is also grounding and it leaves me stronger in body and spirit, open to enhanced mental clarity and with an increased ability to prioritize during hectic times.
Lifting the heart and lengthening through the spine and hip flexors in Cobra stretches my body and lifts my mood. Truly, my yoga asana practice lends stability during chaos, strength amid uncertainty, and the flexibility to manage my overloaded to-do list (whew). In turn, I can move forward with clearer intention; pressures from the outside world become less significant and my true self emerges, ready and able to accomplish reasonable goals. Plus, there’s the added bonus of a decidedly sunnier disposition, which makes for more pleasant living!
How do you find focus in the midst of springtime scramble? Or anytime scramble?
When being pulled in all directions and your to-do list is out of control, how do you keep from falling apart? I welcome your thoughts; please feel free to share! In the meantime, I wish you a season of balance, peace, and flexibility. As the saying goes, “Blessed are the flexible; for they shall bend but never break.” Happy Spring!
January 23, 2016 – Slowing for Savasana
Happy New Year, EveryBODY! ‘Tis the season of setting intentions to form new and healthy habits; how are yours panning out so far? Habits are short to make but long to break; the busy-ness of the holidays and the resulting need for rest following all the good cheer has me reflecting on a longstanding habit of mine: the afternoon nap. Oh, how I crave a good nap! Truly, most days I find a bit of time for a short siesta, and while much of society may not support anyone over the age of five taking naps, I have come to realize that I rather appreciate my commitment to a moment of restoration during an otherwise full day.
Napping is a habit my parents encouraged; during our early years, the whole family would pile onto Mom and Dad’s bed on Sunday afternoon and drift into dreamland for a slowing down and charging up for the week ahead. As my two brothers and I grew older, naptime became an individual ritual, with my dad leading as the most devoted nap-taker. Often, naptime began with reading and relaxing, followed by sleep. Sometimes sleep was never reached, but the routine of resting still offered the quiet space needed to “just breathe” in the middle of the day. This “just breathing” is what I find myself coming back to, again and again, as the pace of life seems to increase exponentially with each passing year. While sleeping is often a preferred method of getting away from stress and anxiety, naptime isn’t always available, and it certainly isn’t healthy to seek sleep every time we become agitated. Yoga offers the perfect posture for relaxing and allowing both body and mind to breathe and renew. Typically performed at the end of a yoga session, Savasana, or Corpse Pose, invites one into a state of quiet awareness and complete physical relaxation; the benefits include a more intimate awareness of the physical self and the ability to carry the resulting state of peace and balance into our daily lives.
When I first began practicing yoga, I didn’t quite get Savasana. Turns out, complete physical relaxation is not so simple for a fidgety, fairly anxious person to achieve! And forget about “quieting the mind;” the more I tried to relax my thoughts, the quicker they came. Lying supine on the mat after an invigorating series of postures, I’d find myself pondering the time, the temperature, and the to-do list of my day, while the instructor was speaking of melting muscles and inner calm. Cares passing by like clouds? Forget about it! With practice, though, Savasana became a welcome and necessary portion of practice. It became slightly easier to surrender to the moment and enjoy the stillness and silence of body and mind. All the little bits and pieces of tension began to shed themselves from my muscles, bones, and joints. Even my “Monkey Mind,” as Buddhists so appropriately name our constantly chattering and changing thoughts, began finding a slightly slower pace and gentler persistence.
While the term “corpse pose” may be less than attractive to some, the symbolism behind it is absolutely freeing and enlivening. Physically, we allow our self to become motionless, as in death, to encourage the body to process the practice of asanas we just completed. Mentally, by experiencing the death of our anxieties, we give space to grow goodness and peace. By letting go, we die then grow. How liberating this can be! We work hard, play hard, and generally view life to be approached with drive and ambition, so taking the time to let go can foster calm, contentment and focus to continue successfully when so many variants demand our attention. And the non-judgment aspect of yoga proves quite useful when practicing Savasana; there’s no such thing as an “incorrect” Corpse Pose. Thinking about a meeting you need to prepare for? The argument you had with a loved one? What’s for dinner? It is ok! You exist, you breathe, and the rest is whatever it happens to be. Again, Savasana can bring a more intimate awareness to our physical and mental selves, and this can be uncomfortable at times. By allowing yourself to acknowledge the discomfort (of lying still, of a hurried mind, or of perhaps more urgent issues), you are automatically bringing yourself closer to a deeper understanding of your self and your connection to this life. With time, you will most definitely begin to find space between your thoughts and the satisfying feeling of complete relaxation. In turn, you will be more prepared to face the challenges that await you upon stepping off your yoga mat.
I invite you to seek the serenity Savasana can provide, on and off the mat. Lie back, close your eyes, and just breathe. If you fall asleep, don’t worry: naps are a good thing!
October 25, 2015 – Rooting Down and Reaching Up
A recent conversation with my dear son, Gabe, brought light to a fact I don’t regularly give thought to but know to be true: Adults’ imaginary skills are employed far less often than children’s. Gabe recalled a lesson the literary arts teacher gave his class; they were asked to imagine various scenes, giving attention to and incorporating details such as color, sound, and texture. This type of practice typically comes easily to a young mind, as children naturally and readily inhabit the land of pretend play. His teacher went on to tell the class that adults often have trouble finding their imagination, as they are so very busy with other jobs and tasks that their brains are focused elsewhere. She is absolutely right! This time of year is particularly busy for us adults, but we can seek peace in the process of cultivating our creative selves. A yoga practice is ideal for exploring and discovering contentment through imagery and visualization.
As late October nears, my need for the groundedness of a yogic lifestyle intensifies. For all the fun the fall season brings (Pumpkins! Parties! Halloween! Thanksgiving!), a sense of urgency begins to creep into the nooks and crannies of my daily doings, reminding me to continue to seek balance and a sense of peace in life. Truly, the last few months of the year are busy for many of us; in addition to the holidays and their accompanying festivities, we are often under extra pressure from school and/or work, in the form of projects and papers, deadlines and delays.
Living in the Southeastern United States, I get to experience the change of seasons not only by the calendar date, but through a shift in landscape and temperature. Autumn is a time of cool, crisp air and stunning foliage. It is also a time of greater responsibility and bidding adieu to the warm, sunny, and slightly more carefree days of summer. The lush green scenery gives way to a decidedly browner view, but not before our maple and sweetgum trees bestow us with a visual feast of color. Once the orange, red, gold, and purple display is over, our trees stand bare before us, showing off their sturdy framework, whether big or small. The trees of fall give me pause, allowing me to contemplate how it does us well to embrace their growing and living characteristics. In yoga, we practice Tree Pose (Vrksasana), which embodies goodness, strength, and balance, both physically and mentally.
I incorporate Tree Pose into every class that I guide. Inviting students to “root down and reach up” is beneficial not only for the physical balance of the posture, but in presenting the possibility of one’s receiving something beyond muscular refinement. Once the standing leg, hips, ribs, shoulders, and head are well-aligned, try imagining that you are literally growing roots from your standing foot into the earth. By growing roots, you are allowing yourself a steady, grounded sense of being. You are connected to the earth, calmed, and ready for the breezes (or hurricanes!) that will blow you around from time to time. During this season of thanksgiving and family gatherings, practicing Tree can be a great time to reflect on how you personally are rooted to this earth and how your inner self is nourished. I like to picture my roots supported by rich soil, slowly drinking the rainwater from below, growing ever downward and outward. This sense of connection can lead to contemplation of how we stay grounded in this life, through relationships, community, service, and spiritual guidance.
As for the “reaching up” aspect of Tree, one can explore not only the feeling of growth and length through the torso, arms, and crown of the head, but also through the opening of the mind and heart to receive whatever that moment offers. I like to imagine my Tree basking in the sun, warming my heart and mind, and melting any rigidity or tension I may be experiencing. The words “light” and “love” often come to mind, and I’ll even see leaves sprouting and flowers blooming from my branches, which extend far beyond the branch-like pose of my arms. My imagination comes from an inwardly focused place, rather than that of the external shape my body is forming.
Many of us live in that external world most of the day, completing to-do lists and familiar routines. What if we took just a few minutes to leave the surface and explore our inner selves and “be a tree?” Feel the warmth of the radiant sun and the depth of the life-giving soil, acknowledge your connection to all that is grounding and calming, and breathe peace into this busy season…aaahhhhhhh…….yoga!
Wonderful wishes to all,
August 31, 2015 – Mirror, Mirror
On the wall
Who’s the fairest yogi of all???
If I’m honest, I approached the beginnings of my yoga journey with a tinge of this sentiment; having developed a complicated relationship with mirrors as a dancer and female in our looks-obsessed culture, I couldn’t help but simultaneously admire and admonish my appearance at times during my first yoga classes. How did I look? How did I compare to the instructor at the front of the room? How was I performing, not only in the physical doing of the postures, but in presentation and style?
Coming from a background steeped in presentation and entertainment, it took some time before I began to truly allow and appreciate the deeper focus of yoga, the “from within” feeling that can bring such inner calm and strength. In the arts and entertainment realm, the best and truest performances in song, dance, and stage typically come from an artist’s digging deep and giving a heartfelt and honest display. But let’s face it, there’s no getting away from some aspect of the importance appearance is given in the performing arts, whether it’s coming from a director, manager, designer, the audience, or the artist him/herself. Paired with our cultural and human inclination to value beauty and attractiveness, a performer of the arts can find him/herself in a constant battle with vanity. Actually, I’d say most of us are in a constant battle with vanity, whether we’re aware of it or not. It’s in our nature. We all perform to different degrees and on a daily basis; think of times you’ve “put your best foot forward,” “made a good first impression,” or “dressed to impress.” While these are all commendable actions and can enhance our earthly experience, they are also appearance and/or performance based, appealing primarily to outwardly focused senses. In the search for a more fulfilling and balanced life, one can benefit greatly from the inner centering, grounding practice of yoga. What freedom from ego this can bring!
Ah, the human ego! It is at once a blessing and a curse, at times pushing us to reach for goals we might otherwise ignore, yet proving an enormous hindrance when coupled with pride and defensiveness, as is sometimes the case when trying something new and different. I’ve certainly shied away from new experiences in the past, fearing I’d make a fool of myself and concerned with other people’s opinion of my abilities. In fact, while attending my first yoga class, I began to wonder if I’d make it through to the end. I was used to performing physically in front of others on the dance floor and in other dance-based fitness classes, but this was new and unfamiliar, and it was hard! All that hanging upside-down in forward fold, the duration of many postures (would we ever get out of this chair pose? this plank???), these things challenged me and made me keenly aware of my discomfort and my possibly visible uncertainty. I stuck with it, though – I had no choice, with three young children and all kinds of stress, I needed serenity now! As the weeks and classes passed, I not only became surer and steadier, but I also began to notice a shift in my focus while practicing. My mind was observing the feeling and physical origin of the poses, rather than how the mirror reflected them. I have since come to view the mirror in yoga as a window to and through myself, not strictly a reflection of my outer form.
Looking into your self can be a strange and uncomfortable thing. Taking time to notice your breath, body, and mind can reveal doubts, distractions, and fears. More often, though, it can reveal wonderful spaces of clarity, calm, and strength. Barbara (Hengstenberg, the wonderful woman behind WildesArt) told me about a recent yoga practice during which she could not see herself in the mirror; she noticed a deeper understanding of movement, posture, and breathing take place. When we discover that deeper understanding, a centered self develops, while the self-centered ego fades away. Of course, the physical benefits become apparent from the outside as well, but even greater is the satisfaction of enrichment solely for the self. Whether you practice with or without a mirror, remember to seek inspiration from that centered place. A yoga practice void of performance and full of intent from within can be so very wonderfully freeing!
July 31, 2015 – Yoga for Every Body
Greetings! It is truly a pleasure to meet you in and amongst the goodness of WildesArt! I’m Bonnie, and I’ll be joining you from time to time, to explore thoughts on yoga; specifically, thoughts regarding the idea that yoga is for everybody and every body. The yoga community is currently abuzz with discussion of this very subject; thankfully, the ancient practice is becoming increasingly accessible and acceptable to anyone interested in participating.
Indeed, the popularity of yoga has expanded remarkably in recent years, as has the diversity of the practicing population. I’ve seen this firsthand, in classes I attend and teach. More often than not, however, when the subject of yoga arises, I am met with expressions such as, “I could never do yoga,” “I’m not strong enough for that,” and “I’m not thin/fit/flexible enough.” Having practiced for nearly a decade, I have found yoga to be valuable in so many ways (focus, strength, flexibility, relaxation, and general all-around positive feelings of well-being) that these statements often puzzle me at first, even though I certainly understand how our culture has limited and even discouraged countless people from giving yoga a try. The notion that one must be a super-bendy, strong, skinny specimen in order to practice yoga’s physical asanas (postures) is one of the most discouraging untruths our society holds. In actuality, all bodies can benefit from yoga, especially those that are less fit and flexible. My experience with dance (I began ballet when I was six and continue as an instructor today) further confirms this truth.
Having danced most of my life, I am no stranger to the fit and flexible form. I am also quite aware of the pressures and limitations the dance world has established among its dwellers. Imagine a ballerina, and what do you see? Long, lithe limbs, impossibly arched feet, and barely-there body fat. Many teachers of years past demanded their dancers adopt “ideal” physical form, in regards to turnout (rotation of the legs), weight, and flexibility. Further, if students were unable to display such “perfection,” they were dismissed as unsuitable for ballet training. Thankfully, I trained with enlightened instructors over the years, teachers who insisted that the performance and art of ballet is accessible to every body. This was a most welcome philosophy to me, having hyper-flexed knees and unremarkable spinal extension. Male or female, young or old, large or small, we students were equipped and enriched with the knowledge and growth that comes with the study of ballet. Those of us that were inflexible became more flexible, and those of us that were over-flexible (yes, there is such a thing!) gained stability. This acceptance of the individual physique carried into my yoga practice, which I began nearly a decade ago. In my search for balance, physical and otherwise, I was able to uphold the idea that all bodies are able to learn and thrive with yoga, just as they could in the dance world.
At its most basic, ballet is a series of techniques involving alignment and engagement of bones and muscles. Guess what? At its most basic, yoga asanas are a series of techniques involving alignment and engagement of bones and muscles. And every body can be taught these techniques! Even better, every body can enjoy the benefits associated with these techniques! From gentle yoga to power yoga, aerial yoga to chair yoga, the variations are great in number and strikingly effective. Will we all master head to foot pose or eight angle pose? Of course not, just as not all dancers will master 32 fouetté turns, a famous ballet feat. But every body can absolutely find mountain pose, whether standing or seated, and reap its benefits of improved posture, length and strength, and a calm, clear mind. It’s simply a matter of searching for what works for your body. Once you’ve embarked on the journey, you will find your way to the path that best suits you.
I look forward to exploring the path with you here at WildesArt! Thanks so much for stopping by; I do hope to meet again. Best wishes for a peaceful journey…