An Imagining or Memory

Walking through Harpers Ferry and up on Bolivar Ridge, I see so many white-tailed deer, particularly goofy yearlings, figuring out how the world works.

Seeing them puts me in mind of this poem.

An Imagining Or Memory

My father and I; fall forest;
 one deer in a clearing. I break a piece of Hershey bar,
   extend it with my nine-year-old arm,

and the animal’s velvet lips take it.
 Ears twitch; tail pops; the deer hops,
   then it ran; the rest of my life began.

- Alexa Mergen

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The singular role of home practice

Home practice plays a singular role in anything we decide to do well.

When I lived as a poet and worked as a one-on-one writing guide, there’d come a point when I told my students they didn’t really need me anymore. And I was glad of that. They’d learned enough to serve as their own teachers.

The task at that point is to establish a steady home practice.

For a poet that means solitude and quiet, an awareness of one’s creative rhythms, a reading habit, participation in the broader poetry conversation (through submissions, attending public events, reviewing books) and discipline.

Discipline, along with dedication and devotion, are the three legs of any creative practitioner’s stool. When I was teaching myself–with the help of live mentors and books–how to live a creative life, I referred back to studying guitar for 10 years, from ages nine to 19.

Now that I live a yogi’s life, allocating the majority of my time to teaching and studying yoga, I see equivalents between music and yoga studies.

  • the metronome ≈ breath
  • chair and foot stool ≈ sticky mat
  • guitar ≈ body
  • score ≈ reference books
  • tuning fork ≈ internal awareness
  • capo ≈ blankets, yoga straps and blocks
  • practice room ≈ practice room

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There’s no magic number of hours, days, weeks or years that indicate when a person is ready to become her or his own teacher. I ask my yoga students to commit to eight weeks of study, whether they are brand-new to the practice or established in it.

Some feel complete after eight weeks, wanting no more than a few poses and a breath technique to keep them comfortable and clear-headed in daily life.

Others study with me for years, circling through the recursive process of learning where we acquire information, practice it and refine our expression of it.

My own home practice these days relies on a deep listening born from decades of poetry and yoga study.

Sometimes I picture in my mind’s eye the teachers who have gifted me with awareness tools and catch phrases that echo in my ears.

Books and articles are teachers. Living now in the small town of Harpers Ferry, nature is my teacher, too. I study how birds move, scootching my own shoulders around in imitation. I’m curious about the spring in the step of the deer bounding away. I’ll walk up a grassy hill in a park near my home to lie face-up to the sky and feel my way into the back body.

It’s as if the whole world is breathing when wind moves through tree branches.

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Occasional workshops in DC and other points nearby with teachers I respect recharges my home practice. The effect of receiving new insights at a satisfying workshop is like cleaning windows: The house hasn’t changed, but light seems brighter.

In excerpts from this interview on home practice and a teacher’s responsibilities, yoga doyenne Judith Hanson Lasater also draws a comparison with music. Her words apply to pursuing and teaching any art.

To me, an experienced practitioner is one who has his or her own home practice and only comes to class as a way to refine or get fresh info or be inspired. But increasingly, people don’t have a home practice, they go to a lot of different yoga teachers, depending on what is convenient and nearby, just to get the workout. So they are not incorporating what they learned in class on their own mat at home, and from there understanding and filtering what works best for them.

….

To be an intermediate or more advanced student, you need to have a home practice almost every day of the week. A beginner is someone, no matter how proficient, who just comes once a week or twice a week to a class and hasn’t incorporated it into their own home practice. So I have a much longer term view of this as a serious practice.

You can make an analogy to playing a musical instrument. When you have your lesson, that’s not your practice, that’s your lesson. The work is when you leave your lesson, you go home. And the next day, what do you do the next day? Do you practice what you learned? Do you try the new techniques? Do you make the corrections that were suggested? Do you pay attention? That’s when you really learn, when you make it your own. And that only comes from a willingness to commit to your home practice.

….

So an important part of the student-teacher relationship is about understanding the interpersonal dynamics and understanding who you’re teaching. You’re not teaching a class. You’re teaching a human being. And understanding how to speak to them with their language, how to touch them with respect after asking permission, and how to use your touch and your words to encourage them to grow at their own speed, those are key skills of a yoga teacher.

So it’s not about pushing students physically. It’s about reflecting back to students where they’re holding on mentally, and encourage them to let go of some of those mental limitations that may or may not have a physical expression—if and when they feel ready. It’s more important to me that we help people understand that they’re prisoners of their thoughts, not of their hamstrings.

Many wise teachers have told us that we are the prisoners of our thoughts, and to help people live a full, rich, and happy life, free from the mercy of your thoughts and beliefs—that, to me, is our job as teachers. The way I actually say this to the teachers I train is, “The job of a yoga teacher is to reflect back the inherent radiance and inner goodness of each person.” And of course, the only way you can do that is to find it in yourself.

That’s what we’re really doing on the mat. That doesn’t have anything to do with dog pose. Dog pose is fun. Dog pose is a technique that slows us down. It’s like a speed bump that slows us down so we can become aware of how we’re holding, how we’re resisting, how we’re breathing. And those skills, those skills which come from the residue of awareness, are life skills that we can carry with us everywhere, until our whole world becomes our yoga mat, every moment becomes an asana. Because every moment, we’re aware of what thoughts are ruling us, what position we’ve been holding too long, what misalignment in our back we’re maintaining, because we’re tense or we’re stressed. And that, to me, is what we as yoga teachers are about. And the asana is really not the yoga. It is the residue the asana leaves in our minds and bodies and hearts that is the yoga.

So if we teach from that perspective, we teach with kindness. We teach with respect. We teach with empathy. And when you have kindness, respect, and empathy, there’s another word for that which is compassion.

Read the full interview here.

Thank you, my students, for providing me with opportunities to teach you!

Thank you, readers, for your curiosity.

Be well.

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Filed under all about teaching, home practice, poetry & yoga, yoga and nature

Lisa’s Easy Yummy Almond Cake

So many people have requested this recipe.

It’s a go-to, light enough for an afternoon tea or coffee break and special enough for dessert. I’ve written out the formula in a Facebook post. But when baking the cake today, I thought, “Why not post it as Lisa wrote it?” So here it is.

Fresh out of the oven!

Fresh out of the oven!

With thanks to Lisa, my college friend. She and I both wanted to be journalists in those days. We were putting ourselves through UC-Berkeley and always hungry and broke. Once a week, we’d pool our coins and buy as many newspapers as we could afford then sit in Sproul Plaza and analyze each story.

Lisa and her mother and their family and friends hosted me for many a Thanksgiving dinner in their California foothill town. (I brought the homemade cranberry sauce!) Her mom also tolerated our driving up the hill on weekends to do our laundry.

A kind and generous person, now a school teacher and mom extraordinaire, Lisa shared this recipe, her grandmother’s, with me  and now I with you.

Enjoy!

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Prioritizing positivity

Joy is not happiness. Happiness connotes a light-hearted luckiness.

A neighbor described her happy daughter to me as “someone who always walks on the sunny side of the street.”

Happiness, in spite of all the eye-rolling that the spate of happy-formula self-help books has generated, can be cultivated. Happiness, like a lot of things Westerners want, is a state.

Joy, as William Wordsworth poignantly notes, surprises.

Joy is spontaneous expression.

Like a good idea, joy arises from being in receptivity, of allowing, like a sieve, to let every emotion pass through body and mind.

Joy is a boon, to be welcomed, not sought, like finding a stand of ripe wild grapes on a summer walk.

Happily, happiness can be pursued, apparently, by simply prioritizing positivity.

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Whoa, if this holds true, yoga might be a happiness avenue.

On the yoga mat, we prioritize what’s possible by placing ourselves intentionally in time and space, then breathing and moving. That’s pretty positive.

What will happen? We find out along the way. (Moments of joy?)

There are other ways to get your grin on. This from the study published in the journal Emotion.

The integrative model of sustainable happiness…, in which a genetic set point, circumstances, and intentional activities make up a person’s chronic level of happiness, suggests that engaging in pleasant activities may be the most effective route to increasing happiness. Indeed, the results of many positive psychology interventions provide evidence that engaging in certain activities may make a difference. Research on interventions, such as writing gratitude letters, engaging in acts of kindness, and learning how to meditate, reveals that incorporating pleasant activities into one’s life reliably yields increases in happiness…. In addition, an effective strategy to increase positive affect among individuals suffering from depression is to schedule pleasant events, such as playing with pets, into everyday life…. In summary, there is reason to believe that people who seek positivity, by habitually taking into account their potential happiness when organizing their everyday lives, may be happier.

Life is complicated and awash with suffering.

How we choose to spend our time has everything to do with balancing our efforts on the air mattress of ease.

 

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Crisp cabbage salad

Make this crisp cabbage salad and nibble on it for a few days.

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Combine in a large bowl some oil (olive is fine) and some apple cider vinegar with a pinch of sugar or a dab of honey, salt, ground black pepper and fennel seed. Stir in handfuls of crisp, shredded red cabbage, a diced fresh navel orange, blanched sliced almonds and raisins. Cover and let sit in the refrigerator for at least six hours before enjoying. Great picnic food. Yummy!

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Thank you, Ann Menebroker

Life is the/equivalent of all/that is good. 

Can you think of someone in your community who you may not know personally and who affects your life?

One of those people for me was Ann Menebroker. I’m saddened to learn today of her death on July 9th.

Ann Menebroker, March 30, 1936 – July 9, 2016

I met Ann first through her writing. Shortly after I moved to Sacramento in 2005, I came across Tiny Teeth at The Book Collector. I kept the poems close, rereading often.

When Ann attended a reading of my own poems, she offered kind words of support. These words, and the spirit behind them, influenced me to stick with the slow, impractical, private act of making poems. I noticed Ann in the audience at every one of my subsequent readings.

Around the time of Yoga Stanza’s first anniversary, I requested her permission to publish Marble, a beautiful poem about light, the moon, looking and love. These two stanzas call on the reader to feel into boundaries of what and where.

Hold a marble in your hand.
Something about
being round deserves
touching,

as if its shape
could go in all directions
but actually goes nowhere
and everywhere.
Poetry is mostly a localized art.
We poets live in marshes among other red-winged blackbirds flashing our epaulets, singing to each other and sometimes the sky alone.
In 2015, I moved away from Sacramento to my hometown of Washington, DC, which happens to be Ann’s hometown, too. I’ll never see Ann again and can commiserate with the other birds of the common poetry landscape we shared only through the magic of the internet. I can say, “Thank you, Ann Menebroker.”

What I remember from brief conversations was how she looked directly at the person to whom she was listening, with the spaciousness of generous attention that is a form of unencumbered affection.

Look fully at someone today, a dear one, an acquaintance or a stranger.

Embody love in action.

Find more of Ann’s poems here, including this one about how much can happen in a morning.

CHICKEN SALAD WITH GRAPES
(for Dennis)

He calls before noon
on Saturday from San
Francisco where he’s
walking to the Farmer’s
Market to pick up quail
and look at the wines
being offered. It’s beautiful
in both our cities. I have
a mild hangover, and am
eating chicken salad
with huge purple grapes
mixed in. Life is the
equivalent of all
that is good. I take
a walk through my
city. An ambulance
sirens by, an old
woman stumbles and
falls. The purple
grapes seem too large
an idea
for my mouth, the
way truth feels when
you suddenly swallow
it whole.

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Allow yourself to be happy

The ocean of suffering is immense, but if you turn around, you can see the land. The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy. When one tree in the garden is sick, you have to care for it. But don’t overlook all the healthy trees.

Mary Cassatt, Under the Horse-Chestnut Tree, 1895, National Gallery of Art

Even while you have pain in your heart, you can enjoy the many wonders of life–the beautiful sunset, the smile of a child, the many flowers and trees. To suffer is not enough. Please don’t be imprisoned by your suffering.

from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh

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The deep yoga sea of introversion

I love to teach and have since my high school Spanish teacher asked me to tutor another student in verbs. We’d sit on the carpet in the hallway together platicando.

Teaching is a process of drawing out what a person knows and showing ways to augment that inner knowledge, that unique combo of experience, information, personality and intuition.

Viewed this way, each lesson is a trip into partially charted waters.

To teach well, especially to teach yoga well, one must be fully awake.

I love to teach so much that people are surprised when I tell them I skew far to the “in-” on the “-trovert” scale. I’m an extreme introvert. And, yes, I straight up tell people that. That way, they know it’s not personal when I’d rather skip a party or the group hike. I need loads of time alone.

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Thank heavens for Susan Cain’s insights into introverts. As a child, I was classified as shy. I wasn’t really. I held puppet shows in my backyard and started and operated a handwritten Xeroxed neighborhood newspaper along with my childhood pal Ana Gasteyer. I also babysat, petsat, sold handmade crafts in the local park and hosted movie nights with my brother to raise money for wildlife conservation.

For my parents’ patient dinner guests, I dutifully trotted out my guitar and played. In fourth grade, I starred as Athena in our class’ modern dance performance; in sixth grade, I played the wizard’s wife in a production of “The Princess Bride.” In high school, I helped lead my volleyball team to a big win by spiking balls at opponents. I’ve been writing since I could hold a marker and, with poems, essays, stories and articles published in many places, my life is an open book. (Sorry, family!)

Having taken a zillion yoga classes over the last 20+ years, I’ve noticed yoga teachers, like the general population, tend to be introverts or extroverts. We’re all a mix of qualities. But yoga teaching, being the fantabulous job it is, allows us introverts to teach from our strengths.

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Quiet Power, Cain’s book for young adults, includes an introvert’s manifesto. I find the book more helpful and interesting than Quiet, her grown-up version. If you’re a parent, teacher or a human being who interacts with other human beings and haven’t yet at least checked out her site, do so! From the manifesto:

  • A quiet temperament is a hidden superpower.
  • Most great ideas spring from solitude.
  • You can stretch like a rubber band. You can do anything an extrovert can do, including stepping into the spotlight. There will always be time for quiet later.
  • But even though you’ll need to stretch on occasion, you should return to your true self once you’re done.
  • Introverts and extroverts are yin and yang–we love and need each other.

All my students are encouraged to make time for quiet and home practice, introvert-style. Perception requires stillness.

Exploring the inhale and exhale of the breath during a seated twist, I suggested to a student that the inhalation is like the air we take in before we dip under water. There can be a lightness, a filling, on the inhale. There can be a sweet darkness, a settling, and even a sense of noticing on the dip of the exhale, bubbles tethering us to the surface we are beneath.

Turning inside, as an introvert does, is a part of turning outside, as an extrovert does.

Sometimes in yoga we take time to notice what part of the breath arrives most fluidly in this moment, the in- or the out- without judgment and with awareness.

Yoga practice is a bit like being one of those unmanned submarines that increasingly provide a glimpse into the fantastical creatures of the deep ocean.

We dive into contemplation, we surface for activity.

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Parsley & white bean hummus

Super yum and super easy!

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We dipped carrots sticks and thinly sliced turnips into this scrumptious dip. The hummus would also be tasty with French bread, bread sticks, slices of red bell pepper, rosemary crackers…you name it.

Whip it up in minutes.

It’s just a matter of blending together one can rinsed white cannellini beans with one clove peeled garlic, a dollop of tahini, handfuls of fresh parsley and a splash of olive oil. Blend with an immersion blender or combine in a food processor until smooth. Season with salt.

Green food = good food. (Most of the time.)

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Calm yourself

“Do not hurry, otherwise you might become sick or get a terrible headache. Calm yourself, then ceaselessly meditate. Most of all, be careful not to force yourself. Rather, relax, and let your right questioning be within.”

-Kyong Ho, translation by the Kwan Um School of Zen from Zen Sourcebook

Gustave Courbet, Calm Sea, 1866, National Gallery of Art

 

 

 

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