Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Peace

For out on the edge of darkness there runs the peace train. ~ Peace Train, Cat Stevens

A new instructor had arrived on the scene, and instead of bowing with a Namaste, he put his hands in prayer with something new to say.

“Om Shanti. Peace. Peace. Peace.”

After several years of practice I was surprised not to have heard these words before! In fact, I could hardly hear them now, because he seemed to murmur them more so to himself than to the rest of us.

I wondered what he knew that I didn’t, and so when I got home I looked up the chant on the Internet.

I’d already learned about the word, Om. We say it all the time. It represents the universe, and it means everything. It’s all the colors and all the sounds and even all the moments in time.

Shanti, however, was a new word for me. It’s defined as the state of being in peace, and it’s usually chanted three times. The first time addresses divine disturbances from unforeseen forces; the second time addresses upsets in our immediate environments, and the third time addresses the turmoil found inside of us.

For a while, I’d almost given up on the idea of peace. It has proved hard to come by. But the thought of calling it forth with a chant was intriguing.

Until recently I thought that peace existed only in the absence of anxiety, something that’s been a challenge for me. But lately I’ve felt a peace so deep that I know it must come from something more. Sometimes it actually overcomes me, as nothing I’ve ever felt before. And so when it’s here, I stop what I’m doing and make sure to offer up some grace.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I say aloud from my room or my car or from wherever else I am.

I don’t know if it’s really possible to write about this bottomless peace, because I don’t know whether it can adequately be described. A good start would probably be a discussion about the harmony of opposites as found in the Book of Tao, but that could take a long time. If I dared to say it in one sentence, I’d say that to truly experience something good, its negative counterpart must be fully understood.

This winter we experienced the biggest, baddest blizzard in decades. Stuck inside, I watched this divine disturbance through my kitchen window like a black and white movie. Outside was quiet and without color. Even the sky was white. The thick snowflakes that first fell languidly from the sky quickly turned into tiny white ones which spun in circles for days, as if the outside world wasn’t sure which end was up.

Before long my house was wrapped in a white blanket. I was tucked inside, protected from temperatures so cold that a state of emergency was declared.

I was lucky enough to be able to prepare for this storm. I charged my phones and cooked up some soup, just in case the power went out. I also brewed some coffee in anticipation of possible decaffination. And I hired a snow removal service in advance, so I could count on a way out.

It’s not always easy to anticipate a state of emergency. I know this because I’ve weathered a few of my own. These upsets were always a surprise. I’d be struck unaware without the chance to prepare. And so I suffered high anxiety, and my thoughts would spin in circles like tiny flakes on blizzard winds.

I worked from home the day the blizzard began. With no commute, I had an extra hour’s sleep, and I awoke in a deep state of peace. I said my three thank-yous and got up to make coffee. Friends and family checked in, and I ran a quick errand before the roads got too bad. Then I picked up some lunch and worked from my kitchen table for the rest of the day. That evening I watched a movie under my favorite blanket and slept hard again, waking up the next morning to a peace as deep as the snow.

Recently, I read that anxiety should be considered a gift. The article said it was a red flag for inner turmoil. I was flabbergasted at the idea, as I personally wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But then I got to thinking. Could anxiety be the color we need when all we can see is a black and white movie?

The article stated that anxiety serves as a personal warning mechanism, an alarm that sounds when we’re living outside of our boundaries. And it said that we should embrace our anxiety with stillness and not combat it with fear, because only then are we quiet enough for the answers we need to hear.
   
Yoga has regulated my anxiety in a big way. I have found stillness in a practice of movement! But strangely enough the practices that are best at teaching me how to be still are the ones that are like storms themselves.  

One instructor, in particular, takes us through what is a rather grueling practice. I have to prepare beforehand, hydrating well and eating properly. And I have to move with faith in myself, so I can be strong and balanced and know which end is up, especially in the inversions.     

After the practice, we lie in Savasana, or final resting pose. The instructor walks around, helping us wind down with her soothing words and three spritzes of lavender water.  

“Relax your body and still your busy minds,” she says. “You are done moving now.”

The silence echoes throughout the room that only a moment ago was filled with breath and music. It wraps around me like a blanket of peace, and I lie still until we’re called to our seats.

I can’t really say that I’ll never get anxious again. I suppose it’s to be expected. But at least now I have the practice to prepare as a way out, so I know I can get to the other side. In fact, I’m over there now, and the calmness is startling. At times, the peace is so deep that I wonder where it came from.

How did it get here? What have I done?

I really wish I knew, because when I feel it I’m free. I’m able to realize that all is really okay with me. And then nothing that’s ever happened before really matters so much anymore.

We close the practice with one joyous Om. And as we bow to say Namaste I silently add a few words of my own.   

“Shanti, shanti, shanti,” I say to myself. “Peace. Peace. Peace.”

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Wall

The only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keepin’ on … ~ Tangled Up In Blue, Bob Dylan
Less from me and more from you!
These were the words of the yoga instructor as we moved through our Sun B’s while we jumped back and forth in our vinyasas. She was asking us to find our bandhas, or locks, and to look for our quiet landings.
I was looking for something else. I was looking for a way past a wall that had appeared in my practice. I was looking for the strength to tear it down.
I started getting annual physicals right before I found yoga. The doctor spoke with me about exercise and strength. Specifically, we talked about the strength of my bones.
She took one look at me and exclaimed, You must be careful!
Why? I asked.
Well, she answered, because you are small and white!
These are things I cannot change! But, apparently, people who are both small and white are more at risk for osteoporosis, or a weakening of the bones. I was sent for a scan and discovered that I was indeed teetering on the brink.
What was also discovered was my family’s now long-running joke about how small and white I am!
And I was left to wonder whether it’s ever possible to return from the brink, or if it’s just inevitable to one day hit a wall – the place where we are only what we think.
Maybe this is why I’ve yet to capture the lift when I jump forward or back, or why my arms sometimes shake after Fire Jumps. And what about Warrior III? My back still feels this pose when I think it shouldn’t. And don’t get me started on the handstands. Oh, the handstands!
The other day after class I was talking about this brink with a friend. He has lots of muscles and teaches something called Chiseled Yoga, a class that incorporates weights. We talked at length while he made several motions this way and that, demonstrating the curls and squats and lifts that he thought might help me in my practice.
And then he lowered his voice. And this, too, he said softly. And I watched as he jumped in place and came down hard, both feet landing at the same time, again and again. Women of a certain age, he whispered, need to jump 10 times a day like this. It’s good for their bones!
My bones! For months, I’d been lagging on my calcium regimen. I made a mental note to start them up again.
Days later, I was at another practice. This was Rocket yoga, a practice on which I count to build my strength. And it was a good practice, too, but still my wall wouldn’t budge. Afterward, I chatted with the instructor as I got ready to leave.
Something’s missing for me in there, I told her, pointing to the practice room from which we’d all just exited.
At one point, she had actually removed another wall for me. She had literally turned my back to it. That’s how I finally got my freestanding handstands and my freestanding Forearm Stands.
So I explained about this new wall. Surely, she had seen it, too.
Her answer was to remind me of how to deepen my practice. She encouraged me in my efforts to drop into a backbend from standing. And, most important, she spoke about the ever elusive bandhas that were causing me so much doubt.
You’ve got them, she said. You have the strength!
We made our way out of the studio, passing the newly painted wall adorned with the golden letters of a chant. She was several steps ahead when she looked back with one more thought.
You just wait, Anne, she said. Those drop backs are heart openers. Once you get those, your life is going to change. It’s already cracked open some.
I was surprised to hear her mention a wall I thought no one else could see. Did she really believe there wasn’t an end to whatever it is we could be? I have to say this was a revelation for me!
Days later, I was practicing again, and I was feeling good. The music was playing and the room was full and I was flowing. We hit the floor and moved into Forearm Plank.
The instructor encouraged us to hold ourselves there, to lift our hearts into our backs, to tighten our quads and press into our forearms.
Be honest! she said. Don’t wait to get stronger later. Get stronger now!
I held myself in the pose and felt a trickle of sweat roll down my forehead and over my nose. I tucked my chin and watched it drop to my mat with a splat.
And in that moment I realized something grand, that perhaps our strength is always at hand. I could see mine right there in that drop of sweat. It was the reason my mat was soaking wet!
And that was all it took for my wall to fall. And now I’m hoping it’s gone, once and for all.
And gone now, too, is the thought of a brink, because my plan is to keep on going. I want to plant my seeds and see what’s sowing!
So this is how I’ve turned a new leaf, which to me has been a huge relief. I’ve made the decision to continue to sweat, because I don’t want to be done just yet.
The practice is only a gift to explore. It’s an effort to feel what I’ve not felt before.
And so I’ll look for my bandhas all day long, because I know the attempt is what’s making me strong. And I’m going to keep on dropping back, because, apparently, I’ve already opened up a crack.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Polka Dots

And here’s the hand my trusty friend, and gives a hand o’ thine! ~ Auld Lang Syne

It’s the holiday season, and it’s dark and cold.

And on this night it’s rainy, too.

I pick up some sushi after work and gratefully arrive home, changing out of my clothes and warming up in a quick, hot bath. Then I go downstairs to turn on the television and pour a glass of wine, quickly deciding not to go to yoga, even though that’s been my usual spot on this night for the past few years.

I text my friend to let her know I’ll be absent from my mat. I’m already tucked into another of my usual spots, the space between the sofa and the coffee table. With so much seating in this room, I rarely take an actual seat. I’m a perfect fit in this cozy nook, and it’s often ideal for watching TV or eating a meal.

I receive an immediate response.

“Noooooo! Get up! Come!”

I have eaten what for me is a lot of sushi. Plus, I have already started on my wine and tell her so.

“You’ll sweat it out in no time,” she responds. “If you can drive, you can come to yoga!”

I remember an evening practice at which some yogis arrived from Happy Hour. They said it was their best practice ever! But even though I’ve only had a few sips, I still don’t know if I will go. There’s the drive. And the parking. And the dark and the rain and the cold. And on top of all that I haven’t slept in two nights because my thumb hurts!

I confess to my silly thumb injury, as well as to my lack of sleep, and receive another quick response.

“Come practice, and you will sleep extra well tonight!”

A part of me must want to go, because suddenly I am up from my spot. I’ve put away my wine and my sushi and am already halfway up the steps to change.

I stand in my closet. There’s no question this evening calls for polka dots.

I know what I wear shouldn’t matter. In fact, none of the trappings at yoga should matter. But there’s a surprising power in polka dots. They help me out the door. They bolster my practice. They have a power similar to that of my navy blue mat, which is even greater on the days when my towel and my pants and my top are all navy blue, too.

And so on this night I put on my underwear with the white polka dots for the cold. And my pants with the gray polka dots for the dark. And my sports bra with the black polka dots for the rain.

And then it’s easy to leave the house.

I hop in the car and turn on the radio and at once I’m glad to be out. The bath, the TV, my spot and the sushi are all quickly behind me. And the drive is amazingly easy, and upon arrival I find a parking spot waiting for me!

The studio is abuzz with energy. The class before mine is full, and mine is about to be. I put down my things and look around. I want to find my friend and thank her for the encouragement.

I remember a time when it was all I could do to leave the house.

“What did you do before this?” a fellow yogi once asked me.

“Nothing,” was my honest answer.

Truth be told, yoga didn’t just get me out of the house. It got me out of a spot that I didn’t even know I was in. Somehow I had tucked myself into a place as comfortable as the one between the sofa and the coffee table, and it wasn’t until I started to move on the mat that I realized how ensconced I’d been.

And so I always practice with gratitude, knowing that once there was a time when I didn’t even know what I was missing, when I never would have dared to dress myself in a galaxy of polka dots.

This evening’s practice is intense and sweaty, and as predicted I sleep deeply afterward. And when I wake up I feel wonderful, and this feeling lasts all day. And so I email my friend to let her know what a good deed it was that she had done for me.

This friend is always out and about. She works and practices yoga, goes to the gym and hikes and swims, all without ever wearing any polka dots. So I am surprised by her response. It seems that without knowing it I had returned the favor.

“You were my inspiration to get myself out of bed [for more yoga] this morning,” she writes. “I thought to myself, ‘Anne did it last night; I can go this morning.’”

Days later, our instructor kicked off the holiday season with a fundraising event. Much of the community showed up to support her cause, and it wasn’t long before the space was filled with a motley mix of mats, polka-dotting the floor with every color of the rainbow and more.

One mat in particular had seen better days, and the owner exclaimed as much.

“It’s time for me to get a new mat,” she said aloud.

A mat is a yogi’s favorite spot, and so it’s not that easy to give up. It’s four feet of a thousand steps and part of every yogi’s story. In fact, there’s an entire story behind my navy blue mat. I first had to leave my purple one behind, which was no easy task!

On this evening the instructor calls us to the tops of our mats and then takes us through an hour of energetic flow. After, the champagne flows, too, and we mingle, shopping at several tables of holiday wares and sharing in some festive treats to eat. And then the evening ends with a raffle.

“Look!” my friend exclaims. “I won a mat! I’m going to give it to the yogi who needs a new one!” She holds it out in front of her, beaming.

“Let me see!” I exclaim back. I want to gauge the potential of this new mat, to check out what will be this yogi’s new spot.

And when she holds it up, I can’t believe my eyes! The power of this mat is just too bold to behold! Glistening from bottom to top and in every spot, it shimmers with a galaxy of golden polka dots!

And I want so badly to express what I see, to describe all that’s wrapped up in that mat. But what to say and where to begin and how to explain it all? So instead I simply snap a picture, because I just can’t document this with words.

And then I gather my things, because it’s time to leave. The holidays have started and soon it will be the New Year. And as I say goodbye, it dawns on me why it was okay that I earlier didn’t know what to say.

It’s because this season belongs to everyone. And that means we’ll all have a chance to connect the dots with the gifts we’re about to receive.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Sound & Silence

Cory Bryant, Jivamukti Yoga Instructor
Created in this image so God live[s] through us … only love, love, love can reboot us. ~ Wake Up Everybody, Common, Melanie Fiona, John Legend, The Roots

I’ve written a lot about my love of power vinyasa and Rocket yoga, but I haven’t written too much about another kind of yoga I’ve only recently discovered. It’s called Jivamukti.

A Jivamukti instructor subbed our Rocket class, and I found myself with my fellow rocketeers stumbling over his opening chants. I’d never chanted before.

The instructor took us through all the familiar poses, but in a quieter and more deliberate way. His voice was soothing and so was his music. It was a practice that was intense yet gently settling, and I found it to be the perfect complement to the rest of my yoga regimen.

So I went looking for more.

And now I’ve started to attend some Jivamukti classes. And, sure enough, at the beginning of each there is chanting. All of us sit up straight in a comfortable seated position, and cheat sheets are passed around for those like me who may be unfamiliar with the words.

The chanting only lasts a few minutes, but it helps me settle in and makes for a quick connection with those around me. It reminds me of the days when I used to go to synagogue. It’s in another language and sung in unison.  

And I like the sound. It’s calming, and it makes me feel good.

Sound has always been important to me. I start every day with music, and I never drive without it. I even rate movies and television shows by the way they sound. There can be a certain rhythm to the dialogue, and I like those with the most appealing pace.

Even the sound of someone’s voice can mean a lot to me.

I’ve often been drawn to a practice by the sound of an instructor’s voice, and I can honestly say that all of those who have inspired me have done so first with their voices. It’s something I can’t really further explain. I even once hired an attorney based on the sound of his voice!

And once there was live music at yoga. A guitar player sang to us for 75 minutes as we practiced, and I couldn’t help but think there was a hidden microphone somewhere in the room. His music and his voice seemed to wrap around us as we flowed through the practice. And afterward I threw my arms around him and jokingly asked if I could take him home, so he could keep singing to me.

The Jivamukti instructor has written about why we chant.

Sound is God, he writes. Chanting the names of God creates the resonance of God, which exists in you.

He writes that chanting raises our vibration, which is something that exists in all of us. He says this vibration is God, and the effort to tap into it is what marks the yoga practice.

I think there can be as many different reasons for embarking on this practice as there are beliefs in God, but, ultimately, something does happen in this endeavor. Perhaps it’s that we become aware of something greater than ourselves, something inside that we may have forgotten was there in the first place.

And once this awareness strikes, it’s impossible not to want more, no matter what our beliefs.

And so we become seekers. Suddenly, this is why we practice. It’s how I wound up in the Jivamukti class. I liked the idea of using sound as a way to tap into whatever it is that’s inside, because I do think something’s in there!

A while back, a rabbi paid a visit to the yoga center as part of a meditation workshop. His synagogue has a mindfulness center, and he spoke at length about the greatness that exists in each of us. He called it The Source. But instead of accessing it through sound, he taught us how to access it through silence.

In magic marker, he wrote the Hebrew name of God, יהוה, on a piece of paper and passed it around so all could see. There are many names for God in the Jewish religion, but this one is actually never spoken, as it’s considered too holy to speak.

He explained how the letters could be used to meditate. From right to left as Hebrew is written, he said the first letter, Yud, represents the bottom of the exhale, as it’s so little as to almost not be there at all. The second letter, Hey, represents the breath by the very nature of its sound. It’s the inhale. The third letter, Vav, represents the top of the inhale, because it’s long enough to fill the space in which it’s written. And the last letter, another Hey, represents the next breath. It’s the exhale. 

To meditate, the Hebrew letters are silently chanted, over and over with the breath.

Surprisingly, after our short, silent meditations, he softly chanted aloud a little ditty to signal that it was time to open our eyes. 

I think the Jivamukti instructor and the rabbi are both on to the same thing. Both share in the belief that inside all of us is indeed something bigger than ourselves. And whether it’s through sound or silence, both are seeking a means to access it.

And this search appeals to me, even though I find the means to be a bit of a challenge. It’s not easy to sit in silent meditation, a practice I must confess I’ve only just begun. And the chanting is still foreign to me, even though something about it feels very familiar.

Set aside your ego and your judgment, the Jivamukti instructor writes in further explanation for why we chant. Let the rhythm of life move up and through you.

I believe he is teaching what the rabbi taught, because when we fill our lungs with air until we are as full as the letter Vav, isn’t it the same as letting the rhythm of life move up and through us, too? And surely that would leave no room for ego or judgment, by any means.

All that it leaves room for, really, is what has been there all along. It’s what’s deep inside the sound and deep inside the silence and, ultimately, deep inside us all.

It’s that which was always there, and that which we forever seek.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Shapes

And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, well it’s a hard, and it’s a hard. It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall. ~ A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Leon Russell
I love the rain. I love any kind of rain.
In fact, the other day after practice, the skies opened up in what I can only describe as a deluge. All the yogis hovered inside the door, waiting for the rain to let up. I wished everybody a good night and flowed right through them like a river into the ocean, eagerly heading out.
I was drenched by the time I reached my car and had to wrap myself in yoga towels for the ride home!
So when I saw that a fellow blogger had written a post titled, The Rain , I clicked on it in the same eager way as I had stepped out into that storm. I was anxious to see what she had to say about the rain.
Her piece was written during Hurricane Joaquin, an early October event that I had totally missed. I was out of town helping my son move. He was only moving 10 blocks, but I was allowed to help! This was a far cry from his earlier days in high school and college when I was relegated to his bedroom doorway whenever he was packing, where he’d be safe from any motherly interference. Only Bubbies, or grandmothers, were allowed in the room at such times, and I’d patiently watch as he and my mother would fold up his life for yet another adventure.
My son’s doorway is where I learned the art of observation. It’s where I learned to listen, a skill that I’d need to hone as he grew older. I’m a talker, and when your child is old enough to be living in another city, it’s imperative to be a good listener in order to keep in good touch.
The most I experienced of Hurricane Joaquin was a single, rainy day, when I happily ran errands around the city in a lovely light drizzle to pick up a few things for my son’s new apartment. I stopped at the street corner and lifted my face to the rain.
My son called from work to check on me. It’s raining! he exclaimed, when I told him I what I was doing. You don’t have to do that, Ma! At least use my umbrella!
My fellow blogger wrote about how it had been raining for so many days that she had lost count. She wondered how it was that people could still practice in such darkness, not just in the darkness that she said was the hurricane, but also in the darkness that she said was sometimes ourselves.
I wonder, she wrote, what does it mean to practice yoga amidst all this, not only on a global or meteorological level, but also amidst the darkness we find sometimes written on our own hearts, be it injury, illness, or any myriad way that loss, dissonance, or hardship can move through us?
I suppose the rain is different for everyone. For her, the unending rain seemed to conjure darker feelings that often take courage to contemplate. But maybe she is the wiser for letting them wash over her, as water is wont to do. Maybe this is how she bravely turns her own face to the rain.
I’ve heard it said that yoga can ruin your life, and I think this might be true! But maybe it’s better said that the practice is like a thunderstorm. It comes barreling into our lives but waters us well. It’s an energetic force that clears away blockages. It can get dark, but there are flashes of light. And while there might be turbulence on the mat, there is always stillness and peace at its end.
The other night, I didn’t know it was going to rain. I arrived at yoga, laid out my mat and practiced as the sun fell and the sky darkened. And as I moved through the poses I watched as the windows blinked, again and again, to the point where I wondered whether the outside lights needed new bulbs.
On my drive home I realized that it was lightning that I had seen from the windows. In fact, it hadn’t stopped! This kind of blinking brightness is called heat lightning. It flashes without any rain, like an S.O.S. from the heavens. When I finally arrived home, I saw that my neighborhood streets were wet. As with the hurricane, I had missed the rain again.
In her article about the rain, my fellow blogger writes about facing darkness with faith and belief. In so many words she says that we move through life on a daily basis, and so it only makes sense that we move through our practice on a daily basis, too. I think she is saying that life matters, no matter the darkness, and so continuing to practice has to matter, too.
She writes, … every time we move our bodies through these shapes, it is so much more than the shapes themselves … when we breathe in [and] lift our arms, it is imbued with all that we rise for, [and] when we breathe out [and] fold, [it] contains all that we bow to.
This makes sense to me, and I like how hopeful it sounds. If I listen carefully enough to what she is saying, I hear that just moving our bodies through the shapes is often all that’s needed to help ourselves take care.
I think rainy days are a lot like sitting in the doorway of my son’s room. They are good for making us more observant. They are good for making us better listeners. And that’s all good for figuring out what really matters. And if we find it to be dark, then maybe all that matters is simply moving our bodies through the shapes of the practice.
So for this reason I practice almost every day, rain or shine. And I say to myself what my fellow blogger says in her article: Yes to moving through the shapes and standing on my hands and opening up my hips, because that’s how I participate in my life, no matter what the weather.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Ghosts

I always feel like someone’s watching me. Tell me, is it just a dream? ~ Somebody’s Watching Me, Rockwell

I believe in ghosts.

There. I said it. And lots of other people do, too. I know this because I picked up some chips and guacamole the other night after yoga, and on the bag was written an essay, titled, Two Minutes About Ghosts, by the author Amy Tan.

Ghosts are among us, she writes. And she counts herself as one of what she says is 42 percent of Americans who believe in ghosts, too.

I have followed Amy Tan as a writer. She writes captivating stories about the intricacies of families throughout many generations. And it’s no matter who is alive and who is not. Her characters love and argue and whisper and holler, often from one realm and into the other.

When my son was several months old, I used to rock him in the nursery. And I remember feeling so peaceful and secure. I’d feed him and sing to him and always feel so sure. I was positive he was supposed to be with me, and that together with his sister we’d always be three. But I also remember something more. I’d watch as he’d stare across the floor, engaged by something I couldn’t see. And it was then that I knew we had some ghostly company!

On my bag of chips and guacamole, Amy Tan writes:

Defying science and reason, my mother sailed into my bedroom the night after she died, looking like a statically charged hologram of light. I was punched breathless with the strongest emotions I have ever felt and they are now stored in my intuition as a writer.

Now, I’ve never seen a ghost fly into my room, but I do believe some spirits have made their presence known, namely my grandmother and my great aunt. Aside from appearing in my freckles and in my taste for butter, they show themselves at every milestone by turning out the lights. Whenever something’s going on, whether good or bad, several bulbs burn out, and it’s then that I know these two are about.

They also hang around when I write at my kitchen table. I turn on my grandmother’s chandelier lights and wind the clocks, and I feel as peaceful and secure as when I rocked my son so many years before.

And just the other day, a friend come over to help around the house. He did some spackling and some painting, and when it came time to wash the brick walk, he grabbed a pair of boots from his truck. And later when we sat down to lunch, he kicked out his feet to exclaim his luck.

Do you know whose boots these were? he asked, as I looked over to see. And before I could guess, he said, These were your uncle’s. He was always good to me!

This was a surprise! It hadn’t been that long since my uncle had passed away. Immediately, I sent a text to my cousin about her father’s boots. And her response surprised me, too. She wrote back to say that this very day was her father’s yahrzeit, the Jewish anniversary of his death.

And here was my friend in his boots, and it was then that I knew my uncle had joined us for lunch.

Such spirited visits aren’t ever really scary; more often, they are simply reassuring. But I have to admit to a few occasions when I’ve awakened in the night to a feeling that’s not alright, when there is a little fear because I know a spirit is near. In the dark I’ve opened my eyes to see a greenish glowing, and it’s then that I know something above me is floating. But all I do is simply roll over. I turn my back and pay no attention. And I don’t think of it further nor give it a mention.

I wonder about the people who don’t believe in ghosts. Where do they think we were before, and where do they think we go after?

Amy Tan writes about her husband who was never a believer until the day he heard the tune to Jeopardy whistled behind his back. And then he heard it again while he was in the shower. She says it took him being naked and alone, but he finally believed!

But to believe what we see, we have to see what we believe, and that always depends on what we perceive.

At yoga, I practice at a studio with a ceiling that’s been insulated with some kind of gray foam. Surrounding the duct work are ripples of foam that form various shapes and shadows with different dips and dents. And throughout the practice when our drishti, or gaze, has us looking up, I see the ceiling’s sights, the formations in the foam like clouds across the sky. 

And I wonder about what it is I think I see. Are the images only there because they’re seen by me?

I see mushrooms and someone in a forward fold. I see Michelangelo’s angels from the chapel of old. And I see lovers and mountains and so much more. And I see Papa Smurf just above the door!

And when I move through the practice, something happens to me. I loosen enough to set myself free. And out pop the ghosts of the innermost me. They come into focus as I twist and reach. I see them all, and I acknowledge each. There’s the little one who needs holding tight, and the older one who tries to do right. And there’s even the one who was the good wife, who finally woke up to her very own life.

The practice uncovers all who I’ve been and strips away each until it’s just me in the end. And I lie there as a form on the floor, ready to be shaped by whatever’s in store. And I greet this new self with a silent sigh, and to the others I bid a heartfelt goodbye.

And I can’t believe that so long ago what I feel was described by Michelangelo.

I saw the angel in the marble, the sculptor said, and I carved until I set him free.

And that’s exactly what the practice does to me. It carves and it carves until I come to be. And it releases the ghosts that none of us see ... except for that smurf who’s still watching me!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

SUP!

Say yes, say yes, say yes. ~ Say Yes, Langhorne Slim

I was having an ordinary day as part of an ordinary weekend as part of an ordinary week.

For me, it’s the ordinary that’s extraordinary. I find it calming. With a good bit of anxiety behind me, the ordinary provides precious equanimity. That’s why I adore my regular schedule, because it’s so easy to flow when I know where to go.  

I have one yoga instructor who requests at the end of each practice that we be grateful for what most might say is ordinary. After a rigorous practice, she asks us to put our hands in prayer and be thankful for the ability to move on the mat and even for the clarity of our minds.

So several times a week, I put my hands on my heart and recognize the extraordinary in the ordinary.

It just so happened that on this ordinary day I received a group text from a fellow yogi. She wanted to know if we’d like to go down to the river early the next morning for Stand-Up Paddle Boarding (SUP).

For the others on the text, SUP was not extraordinary. For them it was an ordinary way to start any day.  

I hesitated. My weekend was pretty much mapped out with practice plans and dinner plans and more. Plus, I’d never done anything like this before! But, oh, how I’d always wanted to try, and time was almost up. Summer’s end was nigh.

I consider these friends my yogi sisters. They know me from the mat. They think I’m brave! You’ll be fine, Anne!

Okay, let’s do this, I wrote back. I’m in!

That night, I arrived home from a late dinner and laid out everything for the next day. An outfit for the paddle board. My mat and towel for a practice to follow. Another outfit, in case I went overboard, and another towel for that, too. I added to the pile some cash, a credit card and my license, and then I made a mental note to look for the sports bra that had gone missing.

When I finally went to sleep, it was only for a few hours. I awoke in the middle of the night to a tumultuous current of maybe’s. Maybe I was a little nervous? Maybe I ate too late? Maybe I should cancel?

I turned on the light to turn off my mind and got up to fold some laundry, a therapeutic endeavor no matter the time. I rolled up my mat and spotted my missing sports bra! All that and some tea seemed to settle me, and I climbed back in bed and closed my eyes as the waters calmed for the rest of the night.

And when the morning came, I gave myself no time to think. I popped up and grabbed some coffee and put my many things in the car. My saying yes to this outing was so emphatic that I arrived 20 minutes early!

It was a beautiful morning and the river was calm. I put my bag over my shoulder and walked to the boathouse. Lots of people were strolling around and some were even riding bikes. Everyone seemed to share in a secret called Sunday Morning At The Water, and I sat down at a picnic table to wait for my friends. A message from the universe blasted through the outdoor speakers with the lyrics of a song, Say yes, say yes, say yes!

I looked up to see my friends arrive, one on a bike and the other on foot, their experience apparent in how lightly they traveled. I placed my bag on the ground to make room for them to sit down. And then we signed our lives away on some forms.

We stuffed my stuff in a locker, put on some life jackets and walked down to the pier. A young man served up the boards, and my friends hopped on, paddling away on their knees before standing up.

I told this young man that I’d not done this before, and he showed me how to tie the leash to my ankle. I hopped on my board, balancing on my knees, and he told me which way my paddle should face. I awaited more instructions, but apparently that was all he had to give. So I paddled out to meet the others who had made their way under a bridge.

That spot is your center of gravity, Anne, said one friend. She pointed to the center of my board, and I stood up!

Keep your arms straight when you paddle, said the other. And now use more of your core.

I was thrilled to be upright and still dry, and I happily paddled in circles under the bridge.

There’s an island up there, one said. We could go that way!

Wait! We were going somewhere? I looked up the river and saw three rocky islands, The Three Sisters.

There is an extraordinary tale of three Native American sisters who crossed the river late one night, leaving their tribe on one side for another on the other. But they never made it over. Halfway there, they drowned, and legend has it that their spirits emerged from the water as three barren, rocky islands.

That’s where my friends wanted to go! It’s the deepest part of the river, and most locals know about the tumultuous currents hidden below the deceptively peaceful surface of the water.

But none of that was on my mind this morning.

We paddled up the river, our oars slicing the smooth surface of the water on either side of our boards, first on the left and then on the right. We flowed along with ease, chatting amiably and gliding quietly. Sometimes, one of us moved forward; other times, another fell back. We traveled with a comfortable camaraderie formed from so much shared time on our yoga mats.

I felt buoyant on my board, and I recognized this feeling. It was the same as the one I have when I’m lifted in my practice.

When I practice, my spirit emerges like those of the sisters from the water. On my mat, I am adventurous and daring and ready and able. And that’s the person who formed these friendships. That’s the person who was paddling this morning as if it were nothing out of the ordinary.

I was starting this day as part of three sisters connected by something born at yoga. It was that collective energy created by the practice that lifts us up and ties us together and accompanies us wherever we go.

It’s what enables us to float, and so of course we brought it with us to the water. We carried it here without any effort at all. And it helped us flow safely up the river and back, the same as it does for us on our mats.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Bare Feet

I’m trying to remember why I was afraid to be myself and let the covers fall away. ~ Naked, Avril Lavigne

I climb three flights of stairs to get to my yoga class.

And when I reach the top I am greeted by dozens of shoes. It’s warm outside and the landing is a maze of flip flops and sandals.

I stop and stare at the shoes. For some reason I am so happy to see them, as if I’ve been greeted by the people they fit! I don’t know why I feel this way. They belong to those in the class before mine, and I don’t even know whose they are!

But here are their shoes, their spirits still in them, standing to greet me.

I step into the studio and find the owner behind the front desk.

It makes me feel so good to see all those shoes, I say to him as I check in.

He’s a friendly guy, so I can’t tell by his usual kindly welcome whether he thinks my observation is silly. He’d lost his voice in the past few days, and we talk about that as I sign in and take off my own shoes.

When I first started yoga, I was struck by how everyone walked around in bare feet. To me, it seemed so intimate, because I’m never anywhere with my feet bare. Inside the studio with no shoes, I felt undressed.

I guess it’d be true to say that I really felt quite undressed when I first started practicing. I’d never spent much time in the sun, and it had been forever since I’d been to the pool or the beach. I didn’t even own a bathing suit! I’m fair-skinned and freckly, and I sport what my children affectionately call my freckle patch. It’s high up on my right side, under my arm. It’s where one day all my freckles decided to meet and never part.

In fact, early on when I told my children about my yoga practice and my newfound yoga friends, they responded by teasing me. Really, Mom? They like you? Have they seen your freckle patch?

I started practicing in the fall, and it wasn’t until the spring when it was warmer that I bought some shorter cropped pants. I was used to being in my bare feet by then, but I felt bared again with even just my calves on display. And it was a good two years before I practiced in a cropped top. I started going to hot yoga and found that I couldn’t tolerate the heat and the sweat while wearing anything over my stomach.

So the more I’ve practiced, the barer I’ve become. And I’ve bared myself in more ways than one.

Practicing yoga has been such a huge turning point for me. I look back over the years, and there’s a new divide. There’s the Before Yoga and there’s the After Yoga. The covered and the uncovered.

In the After Yoga I started to write. I met an editor who asked me to blog on yoga, and I put to use my journalism degree earned in the Before Yoga. I practiced and posted and practiced and posted. I wrote about Warrior I’s and Crows, about Headstands and Handstands. And little by little I uncovered myself. Parts of me were sprinkled throughout my essays like the freckles on my skin.

And now my writings are a blend of my practice and me. Each essay is one big freckle patch that can no longer stay hidden.

I am barer in my writing than I am on the mat. I’ve let parts of me show for the first time, and not just to others but to myself, too. There’s been someone in me whom I’ve been waiting to meet, and I think she is finally here.

She is not afraid. She lets herself be known. She is barefoot in a cropped top and shares about herself. And it’s okay because she is only who she is, and that’s all she needs to be.  

Yesterday at work I posted on the office calendar that I had to leave by five o’clock that evening. I wanted to make it to the six o’clock class at the hot yoga studio downtown, and I knew I’d need the drive time.

Once I arrived I took off my shoes. I changed out of my work clothes and into my cropped top and short pants, and then I set up my mat. Gratefully, I flowed for an hour and a half, showering in the heat and humidity of the practice room.

We worked a lot on the positions of our feet with instructions to root down to rise up. In every pose we were told to press into our feet in order to ground ourselves while reaching up or bending back or folding forward. There was an assistant in the room making adjustments, and she put her bare foot on mine for an even stronger stance.

At the end I sat there with the others, soaked and rooted, and listened to the instructor’s send-off.
She talked about our feet and pointed to hers.

You have to ground down in your feet to get out of your head, she said. If you are too much in your head, you don’t know where you stand.

And right away I thought back to those shoes on the landing from the other day, and I realized why they had made me so happy. All those people who belonged to them were doing the same as me.

We were all just looking for a place to stand. We were there to find our feet.