Monday, September 22, 2014

Strength

Put a little love in your heart. And the world will be a better place. ~ Put A Little Love In Your Heart, Dolly Parton


How long does it take to strengthen a heart?

I think that depends on what kind of shape it’s in and whether it is a strong one in the first place. 

The heart is a powerful muscular organ that never rests. It beats continuously throughout a lifetime, and so it’s important to provide it with the necessary nourishment, especially if it’s a big one.

I’ve been trying to strengthen my heart.

It’s a long overdue effort, but apparently my strategy to date hasn’t been the most effective. I’ve basically preserved mine rather than fortified it, and it can’t get stronger without the proper nutrients.

Yoga has worked on my body, and for the first time I’ve got some muscles going on. I could feel them especially in the beginning, when I first started practicing. I remember the aches as every muscle took note of the poses and, even now, my muscles can still hold the memory of a practice, reminding me afterwards of how hard they have worked.

These days, I feel strong, and I am strong, and I make it a point to practice as often as I can, so that I can get even stronger.

And I think it’s affecting my heart.

For the first time in a long time, I can feel some aches there, too, as if my heart has been working as hard as the rest of me.

The other day, at yoga, we moved through the practice in an unusual way. Instead of our regular vinyasas, we did rolling ones, otherwise known as Water Wheels. And we first prepared with a warm up, moving in slow motion from Down Dog into Plank, tilting our chins to our chests, doming our backs and rolling out our spines until we were fully extended. From there, we lifted our chins and brought our hearts forth before tucking again to bring our hearts under. We alternated between these movements, warming up our bodies and warming up our hearts.

I liked practicing in this way, but I didn’t think too much about it at the time. I just moved slowly and with care, concentrating more on keeping my arms straight as I rounded my spine in much the same action as Cow pose, and then arched it in much the same action as Cat pose.

And then came the Water Wheels, and I dipped my knees, and finally bent my elbows as I lowered my chest and then my chin all the way to the ground before pulling into Up Dog and crouching back and through, my heart skimming the floor before making my way back into Down Dog.

Throughout this practice, we continued to dip our hearts, and I did so while unaware. I really just continued to concentrate on the rest of my body, listening to the instructions as to what to do with my legs and my arms and even my navel, pressing it in to tighten my core.

When we lifted our hearts in Capiasana, or Low Runner’s Lunge, I really just focused on opening my hip and pressing my hands up and over my head. And when we lifted our hearts in Skandasana, or Side Lunge, I really just focused on getting low and spreading out my arms. And when we lifted our hearts in Vashistasana, or Side Plank, I really just focused on balancing on one foot and one arm while lifting my knee.

I didn’t know that all along I was feeding my heart the nutrients it needed, just by moving in this way. 

In fact, I didn’t even know my heart was in on the action until we repeated the rolling Planks and Water Wheels again at the end. This time around, I felt a rush of emotion each time my heart dipped low, and it caught me by surprise.

Practicing is my plan to strengthen my heart just like I do my muscles. And I think it’s a good one, too, as I seem to be able to feel it more than before. 

And even if it sometimes catches me by surprise, I think that counts for a lot, because, now, my heart can hold the memory of a practice, too.



Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Swimming

Rock me on the water. Sister, will you soothe my fevered brow? Yeah, rock me on the water, then maybe I'll remember, maybe I'll remember how. ~ Rock Me On The Water, Jackson Browne

Tonight, I was in a yoga class that took place in what I can only describe as The Twilight Zone.

I call it The Twilight Zone because I literally had no sense of time during the practice. I was so incredibly immersed in the movements that the end snuck up on me, and I only knew it was that time because the instructor dimmed the lights.

We start the practice at the top of our mats, the usual place to start.

We press our feet down and lift our toes up, and we’re instructed to extend our arms up and around and back into place, alternating first one and then the other, until the room is like a pool of backstroking yogis.

And even though we are swimming, the instructor asks us, again, to root down into the earth, to press our feet as if we are instead on dry land, and to lift our toes and glide slowly as if we have many more miles to go.

For 75 minutes, we swim these miles, pressing and breathing, always breathing, and coming to a stop only to feel the earth beneath our imaginary pool.

At one point, we rise from the floor to a lunge and somehow, some way, transition to Warrior II and Extended Side Angle. Then, somehow, in the same flow, we wind up on the floor once more, only to rise into a Reverse Side Angle of sorts.

It’s hard to recall how we get where we’re going, only that we seem to continue to rise from the floor.

We do a lot on one side, working the lunge and the twist and the balance and landing on the same front leg for Toppling Tree before opening into Half Moon. And I’m glad no one can hear me silently call out, Come on, come on, come on! when my quads can barely swim another lap on the mat.

This practice is sort of mesmerizing. We touch down on the mat to rise up again and again. And two or three times the instructor talks about the earth, asking us to feel it through the floor, all the way down to the ground.

And I imagine it solid underneath, even though we’re fluid above. 

And I think it must be like this for everyone else in The Twilight Zone, too.

When it comes time for Savasana, the final resting pose, I lay there as the music plays. The piece is instrumental, and I hear a violin and think to myself to ask the instructor for the name of the song, so I can listen to it again at home.

And I wish I were more relaxed, because I think I’m not.

The violin plays, and I hear in the music the same balance I find in this practice. It is steady and grounding, but it also flows and is fluid.

Before I know it, I am in a deep, deep rest, after all.

It seems in The Twilight Zone that it’s just a trick to think I’m not relaxed. In fact, I’m so flat out that I can feel the earth beneath my mat, even though we are one flight up from the street.

And so I lay there with the others, like a swimmer collapsed from swimming as far as she can go.

It’s quiet, and the instructor walks around the room, reassuring this one and that one with the gentlest of adjustments. I can hear his footsteps as he makes his rounds.

And it’s then that it’s quiet enough, for the first time in a week, for some thoughts that have been too overwhelming to think. It had been that long since some very sad news that I hadn’t yet let surface.

But in The Twilight Zone, time is sort of suspended in the balance between effort and rest. The mat is solid, and the room is safe, and there’s a peace that finally makes it okay for these thoughts to appear without fear.

And then it’s over in a blink, and I can’t even remember the closing except for the three Oms, only one of which I can do because it takes a few moments to collect myself and transition out of the zone.

But once I’m out, I’m out.

And the lights are on and we are back and now there’s talk of what to eat.

And so I get dressed and ready to leave but take a quick look around, just to double check.

Everything is the same as when I arrived, except, that is, for me.

And there is no pool. There never was. Even though I swam for miles.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Blessings


I'll say a little prayer for you. Forever, forever, you'll stay in my heart. ~ I'll Say A Prayer For You, Aretha Franklin

I have a buddha in a bubble!

My children surprised me with a snow globe that houses a golden Buddha, seated in a peaceful womb of gold and glittering with sparkles that alight on his shoulders, his head, his hands, his lap and his feet.

Every morning, I shake my buddha!

And I watch as my vanity lights illuminate the sparkles as they glisten and swirl in a dance to start the day.

At the closing of one of my very first yoga practices, I sat for the first time with my hands in prayer while the instructor said a few words.

He instructed us to exhale what we no longer needed and to inhale some goodness into its place. After the practice, I was so hypnotized, I would have followed any instruction, and this seemed easy enough. I was surprised how visual it was for me, and I exhaled what I imagined as the color gray, and I inhaled what I imagined as the color white.

During subsequent practices, he’d ask us to send some positive energy to someone we loved.

At that point, I hadn’t heard much about energy, but I’d find myself visualizing this, too, and I’d imagine white stars falling on the person to whom I’d choose to send some love.

With some more years of practice under my belt, these stars have turned from white to gold. Somehow, now, for me, imagining these falling, golden stars have become a sort of visual prayer, the kind I say after moving on my mat.

More recently, one of our instructors was not well, and for several practices during his recuperation, I’d find myself imagining him seated like a buddha with gold stars falling all around, landing on his head and sticking to his shoulders like ornaments on a tree.

And, so, it was with surprise that I received this most thoughtful of gifts, my buddha in a bubble, complete with sparkles as gold as the stars I send in my prayers and sitting there like someone who’s been blessed.

Every morning, I look at this buddha, and I see the gold dust all over him. He’s even sitting in some. And, to me, he looks blessed, and I see in this image that it’s possible to be surrounded in blessings whether we know it or not.

Sometimes, for many, it can be hard to see such blessings, especially the kind that can’t be seen or touched.

But the blessings are there, because we are here.

This week, the actor and comedian, Robin Williams, died. So did the daughter of a friend of mine who herself passed away a while back. And it makes me wish that it was possible for them to have been sustained by the golden prayers that I’m sure were sent to them and that I’ve no doubt they had sent to others.

For, I’m thinking that they, too, were sitting in some gold dust, maybe even with some of it resting on their shoulders and in their hair and on their feet.

And, it’s a safe bet, that they’ve even left some behind in their footprints.

I think it can be very difficult to exhale that which no longer serves us.

Sometimes, it can get stuck inside, and I think this may have been some of what happened to these souls. And it makes me wish that more of us would have known of their struggles, so that as many golden prayers could have been sent to help in whatever way they might have.

Last night, at the end of practice, a siren blared as we sat there in prayer with the room quiet and the sky dark. And the instructor said that, growing up, he was taught to say a prayer when a siren went by. And, so, he asked us all to do the same, to say a prayer for someone we didn’t know, but, for whom, if we did, we’d love and bless, all the same. 

I got home later that night and prepared to settle down for the evening, my buddha on the vanity, serenely protected in its globe.

I picked it up and gave it a good shake.

And, as I looked inside, I saw that the vanity lights had formed a halo around his head, and I watched one more time as the golden blessings swirled all around and then settled down for the evening, too.

And, then, I took a picture and sent it to my children, so I could send my love and say good night and give them both my blessings.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Step Up


I just take one step closer to you. And even when I've fallen down, my heart says follow through. ~ One Step Closer, Michael Franti

Step to the top of your mats.

This is what the instructor says at the beginning of most every yoga class.

I hear this so much that it’s automatic to simply step to the top when I’m told. I can be finishing a conversation, coming up from a seat or coming down from a stretch. It doesn’t matter. Everything stops, my mind clears, and I step to the top.

But last week, I heard something else.

Step to the top of your mats, the instructor announced.

And when I did so, my mind, on its own accord, suddenly responded in silence, Reporting for duty!

I’ve never really had a thought surprise me. I usually know what I’m thinking about. But, that day, this response was as automatic as my step to the top. And even though no one could hear my mind speak out, everyone else reported for duty, too.

If you asked me, I’d answer aloud that I practice yoga to stay in shape, the kind of shape that takes all forms. The practice helps keep me fit physically, mentally and spiritually.

But now I know there is another reason. It’s the reason my mind stated, even though that in itself sort of makes me question the state of my mind! Truly, though, practicing has now become my duty, to me and to those I find around me.

Going to yoga is how I have my own back. It’s a vote of confidence in me, by me. It’s how I let myself know that I’m worth maintaining, that my body, my mind and my spirit are all worthwhile.

So, I’m proud to report for duty, almost daily, because with each day, I’m able to see how far I’ve come in caring for myself.

I took a big detour for a generous portion of my life, throwing the care of my body, mind and spirit off course. Somehow, I let someone other than me navigate, and it’s been a very long road back.

Every step to the top of the mat is another step back on track.

The next day comes, and I report for duty as usual. It is a Monday following a long, holiday weekend, and I had been uncharacteristically tired for days. The weekend had a strange pace as I practiced and slept and practiced and slept.

At the end of the week’s first workday, I stop home to eat and change out of my work clothes. Continuing my weekend pattern, I set the alarm for a 45 minute snooze and fall into a deep sleep before putting on my yoga clothes and leaving the house. 

The evening class is crowded, and there’s only one space left for the instructor. The room is hot from the previous class, and the instructor opens the windows to invite in the setting sun and the summer breeze.

Step to the top of your mats, he says.

I automatically take the step, and we’re told to place our feet wider than usual and bring our hands to our hearts. We are asked to set an intention or say a prayer or think of anything meaningful. 

Every time we’re asked to do this, a million things run through my mind, as if I have to figure something out quickly in this very brief moment. Should I bless my children? Should I think of a friend or family member? Should I say a prayer? Should I send good thoughts to someone?  Should I, should I, should I?

This night, I decide to send my thoughts to me, which I don’t usually do. And once again, I hear my mind speak on its own accord, this time simply saying the word, Love.

And then we’re told that we’re going to start slow, and we follow the instructor’s motions as he raises his hands to the ceiling before bringing them back to his heart.

I press my hands together and follow them with my eyes, up and overhead, just in time to see a dozen rainbow polka dots splashed across the ceiling, a picture the setting sun has made as it shines through a prism that hangs in the window.  

The class moves along at what I find is an unusual pace of patience and power. Somehow, the movements are big and small at the same time. We move carefully and slowly in a way that is powerful and strong. The instructor practices with us while telling us what to do, so we can listen and see at the same time.

Periodically, we are told to stop. After a flow, we are supposed to hold still. We are instructed to take Child’s pose. Later, we are told to stay in Down Dog. Still later, we get to choose our stationary pose, and I go into Headstand where I can be still while upside down.

Each time, I’m almost disappointed to stop. I want to keep flowing, and I’m not even aware I need any sort of break until we stop. Only then do I realize how much effort I’ve put forth, and it’s a welcome rest.

Once we’re still, the instructor gives an explanation for why, and the reason is an interesting mix of patience and power, just like the practice.

He says, You work hard, and you rest hard. Work and rest. Work and rest. You give and give, and then you receive.

And I realize then that this rest between flows is the same as the step to the top of the mat. It’s a duty, too. It’s what helps to strengthen the body, the mind and the spirit.

It’s the decision to receive after giving so much.

At the end of the practice, we are asked to bring to mind the intention or prayer that we set at the beginning. I had almost forgotten but remember right away that mine was Love.

The practice has ended, and I realize this love has already come to pass. Somehow, the movements have fortified me, and I feel solid and worthwhile.

I give the instructor a heartfelt hug and tease my friends that it’s time to label the studio wall with our names because we’ll be back before we know it.

We leave, and I walk to the grocery next door with a friend and hug her, too, telling her I’m honored to know her and love her, too.

And then, I turn to shop and see that I’m standing among all the brightly colored fruits and vegetables, an array of rainbows splashed in front of me like those on the ceiling earlier that evening.

And I want to buy them all, because my prayer and my practice worked.

But it’s very close to the time to make my way home, so I can report for duty again tomorrow.

So, I remember instead the mix of patience and power, and buy just the few things I need, along with a treat or two for Love.




Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Stillness

How can I possibly be inconspicuous when my flow is so ridiculous? ~ I’ll Be Around, Cee-lo Green

I was at an evening yoga class with a guest instructor who arrived with a great big welcome, his greeting warming the room, and his smile inviting many in return.

This is a Level Two class, he announced. So, what would you like to work on?

With each answer, he jokingly upped the ante, saying, Oh, hips? That’s a 3.23 class!. Inversions? That’s a 5.67 class! Backbends? That’s a 10.789 class!

He asked us what we wanted and got us laughing when we answered, promising us a high energy class and lifting us with that of his own before landing the room in a quiet meditation with a poem and a chant. 

I was happy to be there, sitting next to a friend who was leaving town and among others I knew as well. I felt cozy as evening fell outside the windows, darkening the room in a stillness filled with the rhythmic voice of the instructor.

I didn’t really take in any of the poem or understand the chant; rather, it was as if the sound of his words blanketed my busy thoughts, tucking them away for the night and settling me into a stillness usually found in the final resting pose of Savasana.

It was as though we were starting at the end, and then what followed was the middle!

The instructor popped up from his seated position, turned on the music and moved us directly into Boat Pose, a pose that works on the abs and is usually found halfway through the class. After more ab work, we moved into an early Crow, balancing on our hands with our knees tucked as high above the backs of our arms as possible.

And then we started to flow, and he even threw in a few handstands between warrior poses. He danced to the music and bounced around the room, adjusting us here and there and singing along, too, as his energy lifted us again before landing the room in the quiet of Warrior Two.

And there we held the pose.

With the others, I settled again into stillness, but this time with much more effort as he implored us to take the pose even deeper. He ran through a checklist, asking us to see every part of our bodies as he outlined the view of our arms, our legs, our bellies, our muscles and more.

I even want you to see the back of your knee, he said. I want you to see your blind spots.

There is something about expending lots of energy while being still. Somehow, everything seems to make sense in the stillness, like understanding the words to a chant with no knowledge of the language.

And it’s in this way that I saw myself as instructed, and I at once remembered an astrologer telling me the stars were such that I should walk the King’s Highway. When I asked for an explanation, I was told that I was not to sit on the side, that I was meant to be seen.

My muscles were working hard, and I felt so alert that it seemed as if I could see out of every pore. And I was so still that I found myself strong enough to look at my blind spots and to understand that it’s okay to be seen. I even pictured the back of my knee.

We held the pose still longer, and the energy was as high as we had been in our handstands earlier in the practice. 

I want you to do this pose as if it’s the last yoga pose you’ll ever do, he said.

This brought some giggles to the room, but he held his ground in much the same way as we held the pose.

Seriously, he said, countering with his smile. This could be the last time you’ll ever do yoga. There is no tomorrow.

And so there I was, standing still in what turned out to be the Just Now, where nothing is hidden if you are brave enough to look. It was a liberating place to be, among my fellow warriors with no tomorrow, doing all that mattered in the moment, and seeing all of myself from the inside out.

We broke the pose and flowed once more, the music never having stopped, and the instructor continuing his beat around the room, singing and dancing and asking us to see ourselves, and somehow getting us to do just that by sending us from stillness to flow and stillness to flow.

Soon after, we moved into reverse side angle. I stepped one foot in front of the other and twisted to my left, placing my right hand to the mat and reaching the other to the ceiling. And as I turned my torso to the side, my eyes passed the window, and I saw a single star, like an eye in the sky blinking back at me.

I gazed at the star, and it stared back, both of us seeing the other in the clarity of the stillness that was the Just Now.

But before I knew it, the flow was upon us again, and I averted my eyes, flowing all the way to the end of the class, until the room finally settled into its sweat and its breath and another poem and another chant.

And I lay there in stillness against the rhythm of the words, and I felt free in the bravery of being bare enough to be seen by even me.

And so when I left the class, I thanked the instructor and, although I know he knows there’s no tomorrow, I asked him to please come back again as if there was.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Unwritten Stories

Anne and her son, Ben
“Today is where your book begins. The rest is still unwritten. ~ Unwritten, Natasha Bedingfield

My son was home for a holiday, and we had the rare occasion to tool around town, having lunch and the chance to walk and shop in the sunshine of the first warm day of the season.

I have no place I have to be, he exclaimed, grateful for such unusual circumstances. There’s nothing I have to be doing right now.

We stopped in a refurbished firehouse that was home to a cool, new shoe store. The interior was designed like an old library, and as we sat down on a plush, oversized couch, I pointed out several shelves of blank books, none of which had covers, words or titles.

Look, I said. None of the books are written. They’re all blank.

My son was busy talking to the salesman. Turns out, they were close in age and knew some of the same people from a few years back.

So, to answer me, my son was really on another subject.

You know, I find myself feeling nostalgic for when I was a few years younger, he said, while holding a shoe in his hand. And I know that means I’m going to feel the same way later about this time now.

I used the years I had on him and those blank books as vantage points, telling him that’s how it goes, that the challenge lies in being present, because we can always reminisce about our past stories even as we anticipate those ahead.

I think we all have a story we tell ourselves. It’s how we outline our lives, determining who we’ve been and where we think we’re going. I’m grateful that my son was already figuring this out, there in the shoe store, because it’s taken me quite some time to do so for myself.

For some reason, it’s taken the practice of yoga to unfold my story.

For a long time, I kept my story from most others and even from myself. In fact, for a long time, I couldn’t even find the words for it. It was like one of those blank books high on a shelf, and having it out of reach like that allowed me to sit in a sort of stillness for quite a while.

And then came yoga, and I started to move.

It was weird at first, and I was pretty self-conscious. Practicing took a lot of encouragement and a lot of perseverance before it settled into my bones and became a part of me.

But over time, it was as if each pose lifted a piece of my story off the shelf and brought it to eye level, demanding a read, a critique, a review.

Now I’m more of an open book, almost the opposite of me. And I’m writing. A little here and a little there, I’m letting myself be known. I write about yoga and before I know it, I’m writing about myself.

And it’s in this way that I’m discovering my story, my take on who I was and how I got to be where I am, even if I’m not always so sure of where I’m going.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this, either, in the discovery of the story that I myself am living. I think others do this in their own time, too. For so many of the people who have been reading me have also been talking to me, letting me in on what about my story connects to them, and how they welcome the words that articulate their own.

But now I’ve also come to understand that oftentimes the stories we tell ourselves can be limiting. It can be compelling to identify with only one and then stick with it. The outline may be complete, and it can even be fleshed out with a good bit of drama and some colorful characters, too. But, of course, the ending then is always the same, especially if it’s autobiographical.

So, while comfort can often be found in telling myself the same tale over and over, after a while, it’s probably time for a new one, for something unwritten.

The other night, I attended a Rocket yoga class. I’ve come to love this style of yoga born from Ashtanga.  It’s sequential and linear, and it’s become a part of my story three times a week. This one I don’t mind re-reading, and its pages are well-worn from multiple practices.

I arrive on the late side and was the last to stand at the top of my mat to await the instructor’s narrative. I know how it begins, but tonight the words are different. We’re told that we’ll be practicing Budokon instead, a mix of yoga and martial arts, another story altogether.

The practice is intense and different. Where Rocket is linear, Budokon is circular. I couldn’t anticipate any of it, and each pose required a new and concentrated effort.

At the end, we lay in Savasana, the final resting pose.

Tonight, you got something you didn’t expect, the instructor said as we lay there. Check in with yourselves to see how that feels.

And I realized it felt pretty good.

Savasana is followed by a request to turn onto our right sides, pulling our knees into a fetal position. This part of the practice symbolizes rebirth, and all of the adults in the room curl up like newborns before rising to a seated position.

And as I roll onto my side, I have a thought. It occurs to me that all of us are not just the stories we tell ourselves. We also get to be our unwritten stories.

Rolling to the right is like turning the page to the unexpected, and this can be done at any time, even in the middle of a shoe store or at the beginning of a class.

And for me, it’s the practice that shows how this newly turned page might be blank but can be filled with hope.

In closing, I place my hands at forehead center and join the others in bowing forward, thanking the teacher within by sharing the word, Namaste.

And as is so often the case, I’m filled with so much gratitude that it takes a moment to come up from my bow. I linger there, thankful for finally finding the voice to my story, for having the space to reread it as often as I do, and for the chance to write a new one, too.

Monday, May 5, 2014

'Tis the Season

Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes. How do you measure a year in the life? ~ Seasons of Love, Rent
When is it time to start something new

And when does that something new become part of what you always do? 

Most things seem to have a season, and I’ve always found comfort in the traditions that follow. 

Come spring, I always find myself out on the porch and planting flowers in the pots outside the front door. The summer often means slowing down and more freckles. The fall has Halloween and sweaters and boots and Thanksgiving. I hibernate in the winter, coming out only to celebrate the holidays and New Year’s. 

Like clockwork, the seasons pass, a quarter of each year like a quarter of each hour; the minute hand like our lives, gliding through what it is we do during those times. 

Off schedule and out of the ordinary, I started going to yoga during the fall season a couple years ago, right before my usual winter hibernation.  

And something happened once I started the practice. My seasons seemed to collide. It did not really matter anymore what was going on outside. I just wanted to be inside, in the studio and on my mat.

I went to yoga in the dark. I went to yoga in the light. I was there in the cold, in the snow, in the ice, in the rain, in the heat, in the sun, in the clouds.  

This came as such a complete surprise to me, the fact that all I wanted to do was practice. 

Yoga brought me into a new season, one that wasn’t on my calendar, one that I hadn’t planned. 

Really, I didn’t know and never thought that there’d be a new season for me. 

But gradually and persistently, yoga brought me out of some kind of shell. I had been in some kind of enclosure without even knowing it.  

Recently, on a chilly spring day, I was running around New York City with my daughter. She is a jewelry designer and her errands often take her to what I call hidden places. In this industry, many have their offices in windowless rooms at the top of winding staircases and through locked doors and down narrow hallways, all several flights above the street. You have to know where you are going and, once inside, you can’t even tell what time of year it is outside. 

We stepped out of a rickety old elevator and pressed the doorbell which at once sang out the tune, Joy to the World

It’s Christmas in here, I said to the man who answered. 

It doesn’t matter the season, he said, as we collected the pieces we had come to pick up. 

I liked how it was spring, how there were no windows to see the sun, yet the doorbell invented the holiday season year round. 

The physical practice of yoga has reintroduced me to myself, and I’m still figuring this out. I didn’t know this could happen midway through my life, but apparently, if it can be Christmas in March, then I can embrace a new season for me, too. 

I think it’s been the actual moving on my mat that has brought me out of so many years of what I recognize now as a lengthy winter. The movement is energizing. My body moves and so many emotions and feelings that had been in many ways sleeping have come awake.  

I don’t consciously think about this. It’s just what has happened. I am just more awake these days, and I don’t want to sit around anymore.  

My yoga practice has taken me to several studios, and I seem to be all over town, back to the places I frequented many, many seasons before as a young adult. 

One studio is right by where I lived after college graduation, another is near where we used to all go out, and one more is in another spot from my early married days. 

So, maybe yoga has me living my life in reverse, seeing that I am at all of my old haunts. It certainly has brought my body back into the shape it was during those days and maybe even stronger, if I dare say. 

But reflecting on all this, I have to admit I don’t know what’s next.  

If I’m not going around the clock as I had been, then where am I headed? Where does this new season fit on the calendar that I long ago organized for myself but which no longer applies? 

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a writer. Yoga put that on the schedule, too. For the first time, I am writing and people are reading. 

The other day, I was exclaiming about this to my mother.  

I always wanted to write, I said. I can’t believe I’m writing. 

And what was it she said back? Of all the responses she could have, what she said to me was, ‘Tis the season! 

How she knew, I don’t know. Maybe she has had several new seasons herself.  


Maybe we all have.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Sisters

Sisters Ida Phillips Alpher and Katherine Phillips Horenstein
"Friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies." ~ Aristotle

The other night at yoga, we practiced with our eyes shut.

We moved without seeing for 75 minutes. Apparently, it was the night to focus on our Third Eye, the body’s energy center for insight and intuition.

I, myself, am more focused on not falling. And, I have to admit that I open my eyes a few times.

The first time is to make sure I’m not the only one with eyes closed, which, of course, makes me the only one with eyes open. The second time is to check the pose. And a couple more times, I have to say, is because I just can’t help it!

Aside from that, I move deliberately through darkness with those around me, listening to the matching melodies of the instructor’s voice and the music. Periodically, we sit back on our heels and bring our hands to forehead center for a look inside.

I wonder if anyone else has more than just themselves inside. Because inside me, I’ve got some company!

My grandmother, Kate, and her sister, Ida, were thick as thieves. Two sisters, one soul, their mother would say.

From the very beginning of their lives, they were on a journey together. Born in Russia, their father emigrated to the United States and sent for them with the rest of the family when they were only a few years old.

And, although my grandmother outlived her sister by many years, they paced the days of their lives alongside one another, always together.

When it was time for Ida to go to kindergarten, she refused, saying she would wait until the next year when her sister Kate would be old enough to join her. And when it was time for Ida to get married, she refused, saying she would wait until the time when her sister Kate would find someone, too.

So Kate and Ida, two best friends, married another set of two best friends, Max and Duvid (Do). They had matching engagement rings, a double wedding and a shared honeymoon.

My mother remembers my Aunt Ida and Uncle Do coming over every Sunday during her growing up years. The sisters would put dinner in the oven and climb into bed for a lazy afternoon, talking until it was time to eat.

During the rest of the week, the two spoke every day.

For some reason, since I’ve started practicing yoga, I’ve been thinking about these two sisters. I feel a kinship with them and, when I look inside, I feel their presence.

When I was little, we saw them every Sunday. They were in charge of my siblings and me when my parents traveled, and they patiently watched the many shows my sister and I would perform. We sang songs and played four square. And, best of all, my Aunt Ida let us toss knaidles, the Jewish version of dumplings, clear across the kitchen and into the pot.

And now as an adult, these sisters are back with me again, even recently appearing at one of the few meditation classes I’ve attended.

I was seated in a circle at a session led by a rabbi who’s established a mindfulness center at his synagogue. The rabbi related a story from the week’s Torah portion and discussed its mystical meanings that so closely relate to the Buddhist teachings of yoga, and then we closed our eyes for a few minutes’ meditation.

Afterwards, people volunteered the thoughts they had behind their eyes.

I listened but didn’t speak because what had appeared behind my eyes was more of an image than a thought. What I saw inside was my Aunt Ida and my Bubba Kate.

Somehow, I didn’t think it strange but, at the time, I wondered why they had appeared.

Now, though, as I write this, I realize that I was sitting in that circle because I was seeking something soothing at a tumultuous time. And, sitting there with my eyes closed seemed to help me find just that. In the connection behind my eyes, the image of these sisters passed along some peace.

A while ago, to celebrate a milestone birthday, I received from my parents my mother’s necklace, embedded with the matching diamonds from Ida and Kate’s engagement rings. With permission, I dismantled the necklace into a pair of earrings to be shared among the generations in the family; the diamonds, like the sisters, a complete set.

My Aunt Ida was my mother’s confidant, a strong woman who lived her life outwards, making many connections and sharing in her sister’s family when she herself could not have children. It’s my guess that my Aunt Ida may have been my Bubba Kate’s safety net.

Kate lost her husband and later lost her sister Ida. And then she stayed on her own, living in a much more isolated way.

And now, these days, when I sit back for a look inside, I see in myself the opposite sides of each sister. I see the one who connects so easily with others, and I see the one who remains more so on her own.

I’ve been battling to reconcile these two opposite ends, but now I’m thinking that maybe it’s okay they’re both there, like two sisters with one soul. Maybe, having both is like matching up two diamonds for a beautiful set of heirloom earrings.

The class is over sooner than I realize. Practicing like this has taken all my concentration, and it takes a moment to reorient myself. I wrap up my mat and thank the instructor, grateful for the chance to have closed my eyes and seen so much.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Foundations


May you have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift  ~ Forever Young, Bob Dylan 

I’ve been taking Rocket yoga for more than a year now. 

Three times a week, I go to the same class with the same teacher. She mixes it up, and we fly and invert and lock and lift. I rarely miss a class, so I figure I’ve practiced Rocket more than 100 times. 

How is it, then, that I’ve only recently realized that at every practice, we move through a foundational sequence before we take off?  

Am I the only one who didn’t know we were putting on the undergarments of our practice before getting dressed for the rest? 

Like most young girls, I was taught my first foundation lesson at an early age: to always wear nice underwear in case I’m in an accident and wind up in the hospital. 

Foundations can last a lifetime, and that’s why every day, I’ve got on pretty underwear under there. And I think that’s also why we are working on a foundation at Rocket. It’s not just for that day’s practice, but for the rest of our practicing days. 

How is it that I’m just catching on to this? 

We do each pose for five breaths in a particular order, building one on the other, each new posture getting another five breaths and only adding the whistles and bells after completing both sides. 

Maybe it’s taken me this long to realize what’s going on at the beginning because I’m so busy focusing on the middle. I’m waiting for what I think are the fun parts, like the handstands and the arm balances and the rest. 

But here, at Rocket, and seemingly unbeknownst to me until now, we’ve apparently been threading together the foundation of a practice with patience and persistence. 

It’s as if the practice is one long Home Economics project, with the instructor the head seamstress, putting down the pattern and laying out the big pieces first, teaching us to stitch together the larger parts before adding on the beautiful buttons, the fancy pockets, the sparkling sequins. 

It’s methodical. It’s challenging. And like with the creation of any lasting foundation, I think it’s making me stronger. 

I remember being in a sewing class in seventh grade, and let’s just say it wasn’t a place I excelled. There really was never any kind of foundation laid out in the class, nothing to build upon. We were just given a pattern and sent out to sea without a captain. I gave a shirt and a skirt my best efforts. 

The instructor would walk around, looking down on those of us seated and sewing. Those around me seemed to do fine, but I’d be adrift, jamming the machine and ripping out the seams I’d just sewn. My mother rescued me, finishing my projects on the sly at home. 

There is a foundation very specific to Ashtanga, the instructor says each time. We’ll do each pose, and when we add a new one, we’ll hold it for five breaths. Then, we’ll add the binds and the balances. 

Maybe she announced this on Day One, I’m not sure. But, it seems that for several days a week and for most weeks this year, I’ve been getting dressed layer by layer without knowing it. 

It’s only now that I see there’s even been a pattern every week at every practice, each pose like a piece of fabric, each movement the placement of the pieces, with all the effort and sweat securing the seams in place. 

We thread together the Sun As and Sun Bs and the Warrior Is and IIs. We reach into Triangles and Reverse Triangles and Extended Side Angles, and seamlessly move into High Lunges and Reverse Extended Side Angles. We make sure the right and left sides match by repeating the same sequence on each. 

And when we have completed this basic foundation, we reinforce its stitching, moving through it again, this time adding the trappings like Bound Half Moon, Bird of Paradise and Reverse Bird and more. 

The other night, the practice room was packed, and it was hot. The instructor climbed up on the windowsill and braced herself inside its frame, looking down on us like Spiderman. 

Think of me up here as your captain so I can help guide you! she exclaimed. Let’s double dip, she announced, referring to our yoga push ups. Be honest. This is your chance to get stronger. 

This all struck me as perfectly normal, with her in the window as captain and me at sea among the other yogis. 

I’m here to build my foundation, so I listen to the captain and double dip as best I can. 

And I think it’s working. My dips are feeling stronger. 

Of course, it could just be the new underwear I bought to practice yoga. A fellow yogi had pointed them out in the store. 

I picked up a pair and said, If you see me flying in class, you’ll know they’re working.

After that, I returned to buy some more. And, of course, I got some pretty colors, because any foundation is worth maintaining, especially if it helps me fly.