How the arts of yoga and poetry harmonize body, breath, heart and mind, and connect us.

Expectations

Of the four students who attended last Saturday’s Day Poems workshop in Coloma, California, two were returning and two were brand new to poetry. Gathered around a picnic table in the shaded backyard at the American River Conservancy, we figured out how a poem happens, how it achieves an effect.

We looked especially at tension between the sentence and the line in free verse poems and how space on the page creates room for silence, mystery and questions.

When it was their turn to try it, I suggested the students view writing a poem like taking a stroll: you have a general direction in mind and you’re willing to follow where the path of curiosity takes you. We reflected on how writing (and reading) poetry can be scary: one has to let go of expectation.

Yoga also requires release of expectation. In class, I ask students to be willing to be surprised by what they feel as they sit with their breath, what they find in the shape of a pose, or how they choose to move when reawakening from savasana.

This week, my husband, dog and I have been traveling through as many as three states a day as we make our way from Sacramento to a new home in Washington, DC. My movement practice has been limited to simple stretches and my meditation practice to a few minutes cross-legged on a motel bed before sleep.

From a physical standpoint, this week has been more no-ga than yoga. But, oh, the mental aspect….

At the center of a true yoga practice is taking action without expectation of, or attachment to, results. I thought I had this dialed in: entering any forward bend I have to stay open in my mind because I am not particularly open in my hamstrings, and my pelvis likes to pull off-center in response to a little curve in the low spine. Some days, the sensation in a bend is one of aahhh; other days it’s aargh. Unless I let go. And then it just is.

Or, as teachers know, you plan a class for eight people and four show, or twenty-four. In the words of the teachers’ teacher Madeline Hunter, one has to “monitor and adjust.” Or, in the words of poet Robert Burns, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley.” That’s okay, right? Modeling letting go of expectations is what I do.

Turns out I’m not the master I took myself to be on expectation-free living.

On this road trip, I find I have expectations all the time. I’ll think a place is going to be one way and it’s another. I don’t think I am picturing how it will be, but when I get there I find myself saying, “I didn’t expect….”

There are wonderful surprises:

  • a note on the office door saying, “Coffee’s ready for you. Come in.” the morning after staying at the cleanest, quietest, most modest motel in Wells, Nevada (a stone’s throw from a brothel called “Bella”)
  • strong, strong, I mean fairytale strength, winds in Utah and Wyoming
  • a bakery in Green River, Wyoming that stayed open until 6 pm (we were there at 5:30!)
    • their delicious strawberry jam
      • and white bread
  • a bluebird on a trail at Medicine Bow National Forest
  • the suitable emptiness of Red Cloud, Nebraska, Willa Cather’s home
  • finding cheese curds at the local grocery in Smith Center, Kansas
    • learning that the dog likes them, too,
      • and that they make a decent make-shift dinner with California almonds while watching “Nashville” on a boxy old TV
  • brick-lined streets of Marysville, Kansas where the rare black squirrel lives
    • the town’s hard-hitting and entertaining independent weekly newspaper
      • with a story on the out-going Kansas poet laureate
        • who also teaches yoga!
  • harvested fields filled with purple flowers throughout Kansas
    • falling in love with this center of the United States
  • red buds blooming bright among grey trunks of bare-branched trees from Nebraska through Illinois
    • and purple lilac
      • and more purple lilac
        • and white lilac blooming
  • the Mississippi River wider than I ever remember
  • the first-rate wifi connection at this Comfort Inn I write from in Zanesville, Ohio
    • their powdered hot chocolate which tastes so good
      • and even better with the last of the yummy Thermal, California dates

As we drive and drive, Wordsworth’s poem Surprised by Joy keeps coming to mind. For me, joy is often fueled by surprises of beauty. Beauty seems to defy expectation. I guess it’s the wonder of it, that it exists and reveals itself to a listening eye and an open ear. (Not a typo!)

It’s not all roses out on the highway. We’ve seen desperate people with cardboard signs, farms up for auction, roadkill, smokestacks, tire tracks that lead to roadside shrines.

Wordsworth is surprised to feel joy after experiencing a deep loss. Leaving a place is a loss: the farther I pull away from what and who I’ve known the more this strikes me. Maybe the surprises of birds, flavors, rivers and kindnesses feel more profound because of this. And maybe, come to think of it, my word choice is off as I take it all in. Instead of, “I didn’t expect…” I will say to myself, “I am delighted that….”

And this comes back around to reading and writing poetry, practicing yoga and living life: the willingness to be delighted. We must remain open to the simultaneity of letting go and letting in. This means doing without too much desiring, accepting without clinging, simply receiving without a garnish of fear.

Closing our eyes and feeling what is. Welcoming what we’re able.

 

 

Third Spaces

Third Spaces (ThS) are places that are neither home nor work environments and that we go to for companionship, to learn and to have fun. Most television shows feature a Third Space; many are set in them, often a pub. For yoga folk, the ThS is usually a studio.

Before It’s All Yoga was my workplace, it was my ThS, and so it always remained in some ways for me. When I took a colleague’s class, the gold and sage green room metaphorically held both desk and bar stool as I learned and laughed and sometimes cried under the guidance of another. When teaching a class, the space served as exploratorium, the narrow foyer funneling in students curious about what could happen in an hour.

My job: prep, facilitate and let change occur.

A ThS can be as simple as the square card tables my Meditation, Movement and Verse students gathered around. It can be the all-purpose room at an assisted living facility, chairs lined up for seated yoga, or a conference room transformed into practice space, lights dimmed, gym towels spread on the carpet.

We find our Third Spaces and they find us. 

postcard

A favorite space: the American River.

Are you at home or at work right now? Can you picture your Third Space? Or are you in it?

I urge you to take a moment to acknowledge that space and the people, as well as any non-human animals, who make that space available. Maybe your favorite hiking spot, the public pool, your journal or sketchpad, a friend’s back patio? Define it for yourself. Then pull it out for a moment from the hubbub of life, hold it like a jewel in the light. Appreciate.

And if you ever have to say farewell to your ThS, don’t despair.

It’s better to have loved and lost a Third Space than never to have loved one at all.

Receive and release. Receive and release. This is a tidal rhythm of life.

During my transition from Sacramento to Washington, DC, lines from the Judy Halebsky poem “The Ohno Studio” have kept me company.

in this studio

I have laid down my fears

I have been easily hurt

snow melts, flowers bloom

there is getting up off the floor

the third pine

the ground, the sky, the space between

this is where I have danced

this is where I leave you from

After I taught my final class at It’s All Yoga, and the last hugs were distributed to students returning to their homes and work, I stood in the middle of the studio to whisper, “Thank you” from the very bottom of my heart.

And in that final class was a student new to the studio. When she learned that I was moving, she asked a friend from DC to recommend studios then sent me an email with those recs and a well wish. I’d never met her before that night and may not see her again. What was my ThS is her ThS now. This is how it happens.

Heart

Apparently by the time most of us notice a tree dying it has been suffering for awhile.

In the March 31 article Climate Change Threatens to Kill Off More Aspen Forests by 2050s, Scientists Say, a researcher explains how a tree has “a kind of heart attack” when dry ground leads to air bubbles forming in the tiny tubes that carry water through the tree.

Imagine the flow of life within hundreds of trees in a forest. Imagine that stopping. Our earth may look very different in another hundred years.

Much of what I do as a yoga teacher is offer palliative care. I help others understand the body and its links with the mind; we work together to alleviate pain, to find rest and ease. But yoga isn’t a cure.

Poetry operates in a similar way, offering solace by making meaning of experience, capturing in the amber of words the joys and losses of life.

What matters most, whether we practice it through yoga or poetry, music or business, raising children or saving animals, is peace. How can we foster peace?

The more peace we find within and with and without ourselves may allow us to expand our circles of compassion. There are many means. For me, it’s through practicing and teaching yoga and poetry, through meditation, breathing and strengthening the body, connecting with others.

The trees, and the communities they support (that’s all life on earth, folks), depend on us to make peaceful choices.

We have so much power as human beings, over ourselves and other lives. This scientist’s analogy of the trees’ circulatory systems stopping up like the arteries of a heart serves as a reminder to have more, more heart that is. It’s okay. Hug a tree!

 

 

 

 

 

Full of stories

In our present time, there is a goodness to, and a necessity for, rugged independence among individuals. But this is often best served and supported in good measure by deliberate interdependence with a community of other souls. Some say that community is based on blood ties, sometimes dictated by choice, sometimes by necessity. And while this is quite true, the immeasurably strong gravitational field that holds a group together are their stories…the common and simple ones they share with one another.

– Clarissa Pinkola Estes, The Gift of Story

This week, I’ve been trading stories with friends, with people I’ve known for decades, others for a few years. If there’s a silver lining in moving away from a place it’s this: the opportunity to savor what has been. We’re talking on the phone or meeting up for coffee or tea.

As we swap memories, we revivify our shared past, bringing pieces of it into the present.

In this way, words spin the web of community.

Community, of course, shares a root with the word “common,” the adjective denotes “ordinary,” the noun “open land for public use.”

Sharing something in common with another is a wonderfully spacious experience of the ordinary.

At a Power of Words conference, Julia Alvarez told us writers that the time for loners is over. We need each other, she said, more than ever in this day and age. I took it to mean that as the world increases in complexity, the best choice is not to ride off alone in different directions toward the sunset to build lots of little evening fires, but to collect stones with others to make a single shared fire ring. As the therapists point out, healthy interdependence is the goal.

Gathered, swapped observations and insights link us in a common bond. In this way, we share a common space, an actual or metaphorical landscape of possibility.

This week, I’ve also been reading more than I usually do. I confess it’s not because I gave up my favorite TV shows in favor of meditation or musing, but because access to the internet has been spotty (I don’t own a smart phone).

I finally picked up Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain, each beautifully researched and written books. I’ve also been learning from Richard RosenOriginal Yoga and Yoga for 50+. Rosen loves words and explains the story behind asana names. Their English translations provide clues to the who, how, what and why of the poses. Their stories link 21st-century yoga with long-gone sea creatures and significant sages.

Meanwhile, I’ve been preparing to teach Yoga for Hikers this Saturday. In order for the participants to remember the pre-hike yoga I show them, I’ve strung together a story using names of poses. So, fairy-tale-style, we’ll move through shapes from mountain, to sun, to rain, to tree and back to mountain with birds, peaceful warriors and lions along the way.

According to the dictionary, “story” derives from “historia,” perhaps originally referring to a tier of painted windows or sculptures on the front of a building (representing a historical subject).

Once again, I’m brought around to how everything in life is an art.

That whether we are dancing, playing tennis, making a poem, baking a pie, carving a walking stick, fixing an engine, raising a baby, arranging grocery carts in a flawless row, we practice the art of living.  And in every moment we create stories that endure in the wrinkles of our brains, in the letters we write, the conversations we have, the classes we attend, even the texts tapped into a touch screen. Everything matters. I’m so glad of that!

 

Compulsions and callings

One of my favorite things about yoga, and teaching yoga, is the unlimited opportunity to try–try again, try new ways of moving and breathing, try new ideas, try on feelings.

Every yoga practice is an experiment.

Every class taught is one-of-a-kind.

When I decided to train as a yoga teacher, my husband and I were walking along a rural road on a summer day. I declared, “Don’t try to talk me out of it. I’m going to be a yoga teacher.” The directive came loudly as the voice of a fictional character dictating a story’s progress.

wild roses

Though it feels strange to say it so plainly, I understand now, with the help of books and friends, that such an insight occurs when one recognizes work she’s suited for. With the realization comes certainty.

Now that I’ve been teaching yoga for awhile, I can sit on the granite rock of perspective and gaze down into the Tahoe-clear waters of the years that led to Now. There at the sandy bottom of beginning, I am a baby plump from the milk of Iowa cows, exploring geometric shapes in blocks and boards, spending quiet time with animals and alone, seeking motion by crawling or walking, swinging, or rolling along in a stroller or my parents’ International Travel All. And observing–people, sunlight, falling leaves, the blue-eyed Siamese, chattering birds. The role of yoga teacher synthesizes my travels, reading, coursework, jobs, encounters, writing, explorations.

Do people change? All the time. But our essential natures stay fairly consistent.

Wonder what you’re meant to do? Take a look at what makes you feel most curious and what you are most eager to share. What takes all of you–body, mind, heart and soul?

Recently I was teaching yoga to 15 participants of a retreat for corporate executives. One asked me why I became a yoga teacher. I told him the work allows me to apply everything I know in that moment–and then let it go. There’s an ephemerality to teaching movement and meditation.

This ephemerality creates space to continue learning more.

And hopefully my students learn, too. And hopefully what they learn about strengthening, relaxing, breathing, connecting, surrendering, supports their own life’s work.

For a few years, I had time to focus on writing poems. Knowing the time would be limited, I arranged the conditions of my situation to support the work. Long walks and day dreaming. Hours reading. Attending events of other poets. Teaching community workshops. Devising systems for generating, revising and submitting work. In this way, I was able to accomplish what I wanted: to inhabit poetry completely, meaning to think, perceive and be a poet for awhile; to share the delights with others; to write a few poems that could connect with another person.

Those who love ideas and words combine and recombine them. They notice combos that spark. I rubbed the flint of words together tirelessly, igniting fires of ideas.

Poets also know that as attempts to establish meaning, metaphors are doomed to inadequacy.

We can ever only hint at the essence of a thing. 

Some say that to capture a unicorn, you stand in front of a tree then step quickly aside when the animal charges; with its horn in the tree, the animal is stuck, and yours. Writing poems can be as thrilling as capturing a unicorn: tricking the intangible to come into print.

For years, the need to write burned through me like a fever. It was exhilarating. I couldn’t rest until I’d given the writing my all. This was compulsion. Compulsion can be harmful. The compulsion to gamble, for example, can destroy a person. But this confuses compulsion with addiction. For artists–I am not unique in this–the compulsion to create is a driving force. It can be a wonderful–and usually benign–lunacy.

The words of my workshop participants and private clients must get to the page to unclog their souls. This is why the byproduct of any art can be healing: expression brings release.

A call, I can attest, is diametrically different. It’s a summons, a pull and not a push. Once I followed a bird down a desert trail, staying a little behind, taking my cues from it, pausing when it paused, stepping forward when it flew. Yoga drew me–draws me–like that.

When your call comes, answer it. Don’t roll the incoming to voicemail.

There’s a timeliness to life. Don’t neglect it.

A momentary “yes!” or even “okay” can result in I am, instead of I could or I should or I wish.

If you’ve found your calling, you know what I’m talking about. Stay loyal to it, allowing it to change as needed. Love it. Practice. Reflect. Study. Rest. Identify sources and mentors. Simplify aspects of daily routine to devote more attention to what you do and who you are. Resist external notions of success. They will confuse you. Be glad enough when your work stands for itself, but don’t think about it too much at all.

If you haven’t found your calling, open the landline of life to it by trying something new–even something as seemingly insignificant as meandering along a different route on your way home from work. Odds are the call will come if you want it to. Are you breathing? Pay attention. It will feel as if you are remembering a part of yourself that you never knew. 

And don’t, as they say, throw out the baby with the bathwater. I am still a poet. Working side-by-side with a writing client is a great joy. I told a woman this week that writing my own poems is like making a soup; working with someone on his or her poem is like tasting the soup and suggesting a pinch of salt or a squeeze of lemon. The restraint required in some ways increases the satisfaction with a delicious result.

And one’s newly defined “purpose” does not necessarily replace a previous one. It merely becomes the most recent layer of a stratified life. I still make poems, just less often. They arrive like a phone call or letter from an old friend in a former town. So welcome, so loved and ever precious.

You may have read that I’m moving from Sacramento to Washington, DC in a few days. Come with!

 

 

 

 

Virabhadrasana II + Robert Bly

 What does it mean to be awake?
To be awake is to maintain a sense of wonder and curiosity, or to regain them when they’re lost. Neither can be experienced without a sense of openness.
     Inquisitiveness or curiosity involves being gentle, precise, and open–actually being able to let go and open. Gentleness is a sense of goodheartedness toward ourselves. Precision is being able to see very clearly, not being afraid to see what’s really there, just as a scientist is not afraid to look into a microscope. Openness is being able to let go and to open. – Pema Chödrön, The Wisdom of No Escape
In Virabhadrasana II, warrior 2, I’m aware of being alone, even if a dozen fellow AlexaWarrior2practitioners are in the pose, too. The shape requires fingertip to toe engagement, crown to root to heel. The pose combines strength and vulnerability. It invites curiosity about the present moment. Anyone of any age can be a warrior; the pose can be practiced standing, in a chair, in a bed or on the floor.

After Being Alone

Spring water flows out of a culvert –
I am here, wholly in the sun,
and it is wholly in the sun.

A leaf sails down the flowing water –
only a few inches deep, with old sticks below –
water so clear it has no body, no one can judge the depth…

Once out of our mother’s womb
we sail so easily,
awake or asleep…
My life is an example,
here at forty-eight barely awake!

Pair with: Virabhadrasana II, warrior 2

Speak: Be ready to land on that final exclamation mark. The poet helps the speaker with the vowel sounds in forty, eight, barely, awake. They lead to a crescendo.

Consider: What’s the relationship of being alone to being awake? How are our lives examples of our choices and attitudes?

Note: Poem to be published in Like the New Moon I Will Live My Life, click this link (by April 9, 2015) to support the Indiegogo campaign to published the book; poem used by permission of White Pine Press.

“To be drawn in”

Because I have come to the fence at night,
the horses arrive also from their ancient stable.
 – Robert Wrigley

In a late January Meditation, Movement and Verse (MMV) class we spent time with Robert Wrigley’s After a Rainstorm. Clare Bonsall shares the beautiful poem she wrote that morning.

Endings or Blue’s Last Breath

The whoosh of air
left its old
grey body

And traveled
into the
ether –

I carried that
old Blue cat
home

And knew what
spirit looked
like

And was relieved
to see that
wind exit

To be drawn in
by another
and another

– Clare Bonsall

 

With MMV, we enter a poem with the assistance of breath and movement. On this day, we practiced mountain pose and ocean breath. We brought flowing movement into the arms and awakened the legs. In a quadruped position (also called “table-top” or “hands and knees”) we practiced a pelvic tilt and imagined having an animal tail. We also moved through some heart opening poses, breathed in a resting crocodile and sat quietly  in thunderbolt pose.

The prompt: Write about what happens after an event, in the human or animal realms; include, if desired, an insight that occurs. Use stanzas of three or four lines, depending on the desired effect.

 

Subbing a yoga class

In the last century (it’s so fun to say that phrase!), I studied educational psychology at Sierra Nevada College (SNC) with Professor Dixi Dougherty. This was the early 1990s when the college occupied a single building in Incline Village and focused on teacher education and the hospitality industry. (They do go together, in a way.) I recall almost everything we learned in Dixi’s course; the knowledge served me as I went on to teach my own students, ranging from preschoolers counting numbers to high school juniors reading American literature.

Dixi impressed on us that when you’re entrusted with the attention of people ready to learn, every moment is an opportunity. There’s no coasting. She liked to tell the story of a substitute teacher in Texas who was awarded Teacher of the Year. The woman was that dedicated, that effective, as a sub.

Welcome every opportunity to practice your craft.

AlexaLighthouse

Professors are lighthouses guiding students to shores of knowledge.

 

Moving frequently for several years, I subbed in Whitmore Lake, Michigan and up and down the state of California. Each time, I recalled the advice of another top-notch former SNC professor, Dawn Skailand: “Eat the fish and leave the bones.” With exposure to many learning environments and teaching styles, I adopted what works and discarded what doesn’t.

Substituting in public schools served me well when I transitioned to teaching yoga. It’s All Yoga, the studio that offered a home for my yoga heart, also gave me opportunities to try out sequences, get to know students, and serve as a sub in a range of classes. I am grateful.

In From So-So to Super Sub published on the yogipreneur blog today, I share some tips. I hope they’re helpful.

An instrument of connection

Why do we love flowers? Is it because they open fully to what may be?  These r

Why do we love flowers? Is it because they open fully to what may be? These rambunctious roses are part of Sacramento’s late March profusion. Photo by Matt Weiser

“Yoga is not ultimately about wrapping our legs around our neck or arching back into beautiful back bends.  It is about using the body as an instrument to fully realize and stay connected to our own inner joy, love, and compassion. Yoga is about opening our hearts with love and compassion to others who suffer in innumerable ways. Yoga is not about touching our toes. It is about tenderly touching the hearts of the people around us.” – Miriam Austin in Cool Yoga Tricks

What got you into writing?

Jenny was the first journal to publish a short story of mine, “Rolls.” Now that Jenny is interviewing past contributors about their writing process, I am experiencing  a full-circle moment. In “Rolls” a young woman takes a road trip from Washington, DC to California and, when her car breaks down, learns a little about the kindness of strangers. In a few weeks, I am heading back the other way, back to DC. May the trip be free of mishap!

The car featured in the story is like this one.

 

Dear readers, I’d never write like this now, drawing so directly from my life–such is the innocence of youth, that burning desire to set down a story, every sentence an attempt to understand. Jenny published “Rolls” in 2012; it was drafted in about 1990. I am so grateful to the editors and staff of Jenny who are dedicated to creating a home for writers.

Here’s the interview, if you’re interested. Jenny asks things like, “What got you into writing?” and “How has your writing developed over time?”

If you read “Rolls,” please keep Emily Dickinson’s gentle appeal to readers in mind. Judge tenderly. ED says,

This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,–
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!