Breath as a bird over syllables

While picking up a book to borrow from the Bolivar-Harpers Ferry Library, I checked with the librarian to see if she’s receiving book donations. Yes, she is. I’m grateful to re-home some of my books with her in preparation for moving back West. The library has been an extension of my home the year I’ve lived here.

After all, books are like bodies, holding stories, becoming more beautiful with wear until one day, yep, they’re beyond repair.

When we lived in Sacramento, Matt built a Little Free Library box that I maintained with donations. A little temporary home for books. A part of the landscape we read with words and emotions.

What I’ve learned in the last few years is this: Each body is a home place in the neighborhood of an ecological community, human and otherwise.

What on earth could be more important than knowing our own bodies, recognizing our bodies as part of nature? 

As we appreciate more fully the gifts of our own lives, we appreciate more deeply the beauty of all the animal and plant life we live among. The exchange of life force every time we eat, we breathe, we converse, we dance, we make love. What could be more beautiful than to know and celebrate the intricacies of interconnection?

Every heartbeat massages the lungs; every breath massages the heart. Breath and heartbeat are reliable rhythms of life.

Everything is connected. One affects another. Every thought, every breath, every choice and gesture matters. Every action stirs the air. We see this in moving leaves.

When asked what the physical practice of asana means to them, students often respond, “making space.” I spoke with an artist friend about giving away possessions, “making space” for the next idea, the next project. During the dozens of moves I’ve made from place to place, I’ve donated hundreds of items. Another friend remarked on how little I retain now. I think about flying off to college with no more than a suitcase, then coming back on a winter break to empty my childhood home. Criss-crossing the country with only what fit in the car’s boot. Moving in with my to-be husband in fewer than 20 minutes: He cleared half the desk and a book shelf and emptied a dresser drawer.

“I must be unencumbered,” was the refrain of a poem I wrote sitting on the floor of an historic house in Kernville, Calif., during a workshop with Susan Zwinger.

It’s taken many rounds of my life’s minute hand to realize that I give away belongings to deepen a sense of belonging.

I seek to settle, moment-by-moment, into whatever space exists within a poem or a pose, a conversation with a stranger, or physically, hand-in-hand, for example, while walking with a friend. Because everything changes, everything is connected, and if human beings have a purpose it is to pay attention.

Surely, letting go and welcoming in are two sides of the same silver coin of change. During yoga asana this idea, and all ideas, get dropped off in the bins at the Goodwill of Nowhere and Everywhere, while life itself is lived. There are always more ideas to be had at the upscale shops and thrift stores.

Here’s one I found at a consignment shop: How is the very act of living a ceremony? How is this breath, this one carrying you like a bird over the syllables you’re reading, a home practice?

I’m going upstairs, unrolling my mat, establishing a seat, aligning with the present breath, neither thinking nor pondering, solely facing what emerges, what expresses through the body of movement.

Energy is us

One day, many years ago, while an undergraduate at UC-Berkeley I was walking up Dwight Street from the student co-op in the direction of People’s Park. Maybe I was lost in a daydream, maybe I was thinking about assignments due.

All at once, I stepped into the surprise conjecture that everything in the universe is energy that recombines.

I was an English major who had taken a smattering of classes in South Asian Studies, animal behavior and geography. I knew and know little of physics or philosophy. But I had hiked and camped throughout Northern California and, before that, in my extended home territory of the mid-Atlantic and Appalachia. I’d paid attention to birds and trees, their calls and habits, their leaves and bark.

My grandmothers, who loved the Nevada deserts they called home, drilled in me the notion of the fine web of interconnectivity among all living things.

What I recall most vividly 30 years after the Dwight Street walk, is the sense of understanding developing in synch with my physical progression through space. I could see a tree, and see when it dies and decomposes that everything it was becomes something else. From the soil where the tree moldered, new life arises.

Could it be the same for people? I do not subscribe to the idea of past life experiences or reincarnation as sequential. What I could wrap my mind around was at a human life’s end, the energy that made that person diffuses, rehoming in another body at another place in time.

It may sound far out. I guess it is. I admit to sampling in those days the hallucinogenic drugs unrolled like a red carpet for curious natures like mine at the co-op housing where I set my hat.

In those days, and since, I’ve been driven by facts gathered myself or by others from primary sources and by experiences of a more organic and less intrusive nature.

Recently, I was reminded of that Berkeley morning when reading these stanzas from Yanjnvalkya, an Indian poet of the Upanishadic period, translated by yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein in The Yoga Tradition. It starts,

As a tree, or lord of the forest,

just so, truly, is man…:

his hairs are leaves,

his skin the outer bark.

Verily, from his skin flows blood,

as sap from the bark.

Therefore, when the skin is torn,

blood issues from him,

as does sap from a wounded tree.

His flesh is the inner bark,

his tendons the inner layer, which is tough.

Beneath are the bones, as is the wood.

The marrow is comparable to the pith….

Trees, like people, will die and decompose.

Apparently, by the time most of us notice a tree dying, it has been suffering for awhile. (Sometimes this is true of people, too.) A forest researcher in a news story on climate change explained 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.

Human beings have so much power, in the form of information and agency. This scientist’s analogy of the trees’ circulatory systems stopping up like the arteries of a heart serves as a reminder to have more heart, more love in the form of tender attention, for the landscape we inhabit and the landscapes of our bodies.

The gravitational field that holds together the human family is stories.

We yoga students, in group classes and solitary home practice, are bound by the historical landscape of tradition, its many participants through space and time. Even when practicing alone, we’re not alone.

Savasana is such a beautiful word that in the yoga studio we rarely offer the translation “corpse pose.” The posture is said to “reset” the nervous system as it moves into a parasympathetic state. The mind remains alert as the body lets go. In a class’s final minutes, I observe students packed tight in the room, drawn from multifarious places, supine like snow angels stopped mid-sweep, and think of this and that, of standing trees and tumbled ones, of the stories each life cradles. Every body as precious as the figures showcased in a hallowed museum.

Many mammals spend their lives belly down to the ground and die on their sides. We humans abandoned all fours to point faces forward and crowns to the sky.

We think the sky is above us but it’s all around us. Moving forward on an ordinary walk, we’re not much different from a river’s fish. 

Then we stretch out to rest, sleep, make love and die, drawing closer to the earth and farther from the ceiling of sky. Corpse pose recalls that we are this and that: corpus,  the hushed physical body, and our collected desires and experiences that walk us along time’s line. Savasana is a semi-final relaxation for the Final one. Maybe this is why corpse pose, like a 7-Up soda, is the pause that refreshes. We rise from savasana slowly and gently to sit up and face our world, and are glad of it. Asana as practice for the rest of life.

A boy I tutored years ago refused to read the last page of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. “I don’t want it to end,” he said. But we don’t know when we end whether it will really all be over. We read stories. We recite poems. We get up from the floor where we’ve practiced. All this is home practice, practice in finding a home in the body, the dignity of being alive.

Breath and belonging

I like being calm.

Some days, when I’m sipping morning coffee, reading the newspaper without railing at the news, or serenely waiting to be connected with a customer service agent while ads stream scratchily through the phone, I can’t believe it’s me who is breathing so evenly. Am I the same person who used to pitch fits? Slam doors? Who punched (yep) her high school boyfriend on the subway platform?

Am I the same person who was curled in sorrow on the sofa? Sprawled drunk in the hammock too early on a weekday afternoon? Stepped away from, stepped down from, stepped over every difficulty and obstacle instead of stepping through?

Sure. I’m that same person who feels deeply, cares mightily and lives with the genes of addiction. In fact, the more years I acquire the more I recognize the seven-year-old girl who is devoted to animals, sunshine, rain, who is skipping, swinging, cooking, laughing and sitting on the stoop with a friend.

Yoga scholar Richard Rosen teaches that the ancient yogis believed we’re each allotted a number of breaths. Pranayama, the yoga practice of breath control, allowed the yogis to extend their breath. I think of it as adding water to the last of the orange juice in the jug so it covers breakfasts until the next shopping run.

Meditation is the heart of yoga.

The postures, Rosen emphasizes, developed as a means to prepare the body for extended periods of sitting. Why sit?

Why live long? To increase the odds of acquiring knowledge, and wisdom, knowledge’s joyful, loving appendix.

When I picture old-time yogis sitting under trees on antelope skins, buying time by slowing their breaths while accruing awareness of bird song, breeze, their own ragged feelings and tangled thoughts, I recall people I have known who died too soon. They include my 8th-grade student, Carrie, who took her own life in a moment when no one was looking; a friend’s baby, Lindsay, who was shaken into silence in a fit of caregiver’s frustration; my husband’s best friend, Mike, whose last breath was underwater near the boats he’d restored. I think of those who made it to the end, last breaths tied off like a knot in run-out thread–my grandmother who held my hand as hers stilled; my husband’s grandmother, who had held her great-granddaughter shortly before she died; and my stiff old dog, Sasha, who accepted the veterinarian’s kindness with a slow blink of brown eyes followed by a quick release from pain.

When I played guitar as a child, the metronome taught me to keep time. I’d mark out a period to practice, establish the space by placing a cane bottom chair beside the music stand and setting one foot on the dented blue stool, pick up the guitar and begin to play. Tick-tock, the notes from the strings aligned themselves around the measured beat. I wasn’t particularly good. I could synch with the rhythm, but my ear is far from pitch-perfect and I have little recall for tunes. So simple scales made sense to me. The even repetition of finger movements and the predictability of the notes rocked me into emotion. Alone in my little pink-walled room at the back of the house, where no one could hear me but robins and sparrows in the trees along the alley, I lost track of time and place, the action of moving and making transporting me to a sense of belonging.

Trace the stream of the word “belonging” back to its spring and you find the Old English gelang, meaning “at hand, together with.”

Yoga is translated as union, with connotations of yoking or joining with, as in linking breath and movement or attention with movement or self with whatever the other is, a past-time, a friend, a sport, a book, a gesture or god.

Home practice is both the effort of stretching a bit, literally and figuratively, by making a shape with the body, an “asana,” filling it with breath, then releasing that breath to let the next one return. The Sanskrit word asana is related to the English “sitting” or “seat.”  The idea is that in a stable, easeful seat, we feel situated in an essential part of our selves, peaceful and aware.

Try it a little home practice right now

Sit where you are. Come forward on the chair seat so the back body is freed of the chair back. Establish sitting bones with the chair bottom. Let the feet rest solidly on the floor or a stool or a pillow. Imagine drawing the breath up through the feet, as if they have gills, up the legs, around the hips and waist, straight up, up, up through the neck and cresting at the crown of the head and then exhale imagining the breath showering down the outside of the body. Breathe steadily, un-forcefully. Align mind and breath. Express nothing more, nothing less than your being, alive.

Why yoga?

Each day I ask myself, “Why yoga?” Do I want to spend hours in practice, teaching and study?

The answer remains “yes.” Because yoga anchors me in a stable physical and emotional home as I wander through a peripatetic life.

From my first class at a YMCA nearly 25 years ago, yoga asana has helped me feel more at ease, more at home, in my six-foot-one body. Meditation reconciles a streak of independence with a foundation of affection for community, a pattern of iconoclasm, restlessness and rebelliousness with a respect for pattern, ritual and service.

As I assimilate puzzle pieces of myself – pieces labeled history, personality, experience, desire – I sample integration.

Yoga, with its postures of moving meditations, its honoring of the breath, sutures various quilt blocks of knowledge into the blanket of values and beliefs that warms me now.

On my bed is a real quilt, stitched by my grandmother and her sisters. She told me the story behind each piece of cloth, the dresses or shirts they came from, who wore them. The colors are pinks and peaches interspersed with light purples, white and black. The quilt reminds me of the net that’s said to hang over the palace of the Hindu god Indra. At each intersection is a multifaceted jewel; each jewel is reflected in all of the other jewels. I am a patchwork of places reflecting a patchwork of places, woven into a whole by breath and movement.

The wet climate of West Virginia, where I now live, and nearby D.C. feel familiar to my cells, having been raised in the city and vacationed in the mountains. When the wind rises, I’m reminded of my time living near the California coast, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa. I love dry places, too: Nevada, my parents’ home state, and temporary abodes near Joshua Tree and at Lake Tahoe.  Daydreaming places me on the Pacific coast, at Point Reyes, where I ate oysters tasting of the sea and ran barefoot on the beach with my dogs.

“You’re from everywhere,” says my husband, Matt. I make a home wherever I go, staking out a rectangle of earth with a rubber mat.

When I was a little girl, my stuffed animals were extended family. Much as it puzzled my older brother, I tended fleece and fuzz friends like regular pets: feeding them, putting them to bed, telling them stories and singing songs. I kept lists of their names, their likes and dislikes, and made a schedule to ensure each got an equal share of my attention.

And in the weird logic of childhood, I also used them as islands. Scattered across the hardwood floor of the den where my dad worked on his university lectures and where the family gathered at evening to read, I’d hop from one toy to another, pretending the floor was water aswim with sharks. It disturbs me now to think I was smooshing my stuffed dog and cat, the koala, polar bear and more when I stepped on their islands of safety. But that’s it. The animals, step-by-step, provided an archipelago of safety.

Each a home base.

“So often you have to run away from home and visit other homes first before you can clearly see your own,” writes Sandra Cisneros in her memoir.

Drugs, drinking, a raw diet, a no-food diet (yes, I tried that, too), and every emotion that came with them, were other homes I tried.

The thing about visiting other places is that the process provides practice in establishing and orienting oneself, aligning with the place’s rhythms, and expressing what arises.

The word “seek” comes from Latin, “to perceive by scent.” I sometimes think, like a canine, I’ve moved from place to place by the scent of intuition. And, like an antsy dog you see through the train window when passing behind houses and weedy lots of an unfamiliar town, I was content to be free, perennially delivering myself from jobs, leases and mortgages, yet not quite happy.  Sure, I was cheerful. I’ve had reason to be. Strangers help me and I have good friends and I like to laugh.

But it took staying put on the yoga mat and the meditation cushion to bring me to a place of joy. They provide practice in steadiness of focus, breathing through odd and sometimes unsettling sensations, tipping over into inversions and rocking in and out of equilibrium in balance poses, building strength and reducing discomfort.

“Safety is joy.” This is the motto spotted on a dump truck during a walking meditation. When I read that motto, I realized that safety does come first like the construction site slogans say.

From safety arises joy.

“There’s no distinction between thinking and feeling,” Dairyu Michael Wenger Roshi said at a day-long Zen retreat in Maryland. A sense of well-being, safety, allows head and heart to align. This is yoga.

Along with well-being, joy encompasses gratitude and peace. Walking through the cemetery by my house, I’ve learned to sidestep the poison ivy growing among other vines. At night, when I see solar candles glowing at headstones, I’m touched by the tenderness of the grave tenders. Having death nearby reminds me to cherish breath and the love that enters and exits with it.

“O God,” cried the mystic Julian of Norwich, “you dwell at the heart of each human being, each person an entire city of complexity and beauty. Show me the grace of my own architecture and that of others.”

Like a tortoise, I carry my home with me, the body housing the heart. I drink the water in a new place, turn my face to the sun, lay on the ground and stand in the rain.

As poet Mary Oliver says, “looking and listening is the real work.”

Yoga holds space and time for the body and its senses. Feeling alive in the moment is joy, another way of saying coming home to the cottage of the self.

Readying for departure

In the end, you don’t have much time left, and who knows if it isn’t better to live like this, stripped of possessions, perpetually ready for departure.

– Luis Cernuda, translated by Stephen Kessler

As I sort through collages, letters, poems, essays and journals pasted, written and kept through the years, one theme recurs like spring robin’s song: Adventure is arrival.

As much as I cherish Harpers Ferry, close-by family and new friends and old, the open road calls me.

In the weeks ahead, I’m paring down to the minimum and setting out in a small trailer towed by a small truck, accompanied by my husband and dog. Destination: desert, a landscape that demands simplicity and kindles joy.

Whether on childhood summer trips to visit family in Nevada, or when I’ve lived in the desert as an adult, the tacit silence of such rugged fragile terrain unifies body, spirit and mind, concretizing yoga as I understand it abstractly.

The more I practice yoga, the more I find being outside is inside and vice versa. Home is the body.

If you’d like to stay in touch, just for fun or to bring me to your studio or community to teach, hop on over to Facebook (my personal page or Simple, Joyful Yoga) or send an email alexamergen@gmail.com. Or send a note to P.O. Box 6540 Pahrump, Nevada 89041-6540

Thank you for being a reader.

The piece below began in the Mojave in 2001 with the first line and I’ve revised it every several months since. Living on a mesa reminded me of times spent on sea cliffs. Desert and seascape, topographies for reflection. I turned 34 that year; this year (really?!) I’ll reach 50. Still enjoying time, relishing space, accepting changes, recognizing connections, paying attention with gratitude.

House in the Water

“If Mother Nature should ever call me to live upon another planet, I could wish that I might be born a beaver to inhabit a house in the water.”

–Enos A. Milles, In Beaver World

I burned the letters I’d been saving all my life the winter I spent beside a wood stove in a drafty house high in the Mojave. Wind rattled the diamond-shaped window panes. Black spiders dotted with blood red hid in the rocks of the sun room wall. A scorpion left tiny replicas of herself in a basket of magazines. I had begun shedding the past as new things poured from me that did not fit the woman I had been. I was in the desert for that reason, to find space to hear myself again. Next, I lived in a dark house on Bank Street, bound by Bakersfield’s highways and loyalty to the idea of sacrifice. The previous owner had collapsed to his death in the foyer. Our dog refused to cross the hall. I salted the corners of the house and chanted for relief but the ghost would not leave. He howled through heating ducts and slammed the doors when there was no breeze. The basement was painted the peach of hospital wards. Scalding pipes carried water to the bath upstairs. In this warm, low-ceilinged subterranean room, I reread journals written in purple ink by the girl I was. Overhead, my husband paced, desperate with the error of having moved us. I did not like who I found in the pages. A hand variously bold and timid, guilty and blameful, hungry for affection, kinder than necessary, prettier than she believed. Dolly Parton sang on the stereo of her coat of many colors, beauty stitched from scraps. At Kmart I bought a bare root rose called Joseph’s Coat. Blossoms ranging from yellow to orange to red on one shrub. I dug a hole deep and broad. The journals went in first, then dirt, and crushed eggshells so the rose would climb and thrive to cover the shed where I’d cried. The house we sold.

Bring me rattlesnakes and dust devils, crows that follow you on walks through sagebrush. Things that move in sand and sky. I need nothing more than time.

What I have most loved I’ve let go. The emptier the hands, the clearer the hearing.

The Yoga of a Farewell Speech

Since the election for the 45th president of the United States on November 8, 2016, my in-home rural yoga studio has fielded a sweep of emotions brought to the small room by students.

Amid the November 9th despair of Hillary Clinton supporters and the euphoria of Donald Trump supporters, the media-free hour-long practices of yoga postures, meditation and breath awareness have stabilized moods and unkinked restless bodies, including my own.

Barack Obama was the fourth presidential candidate for whom I’ve cast a vote in my lifetime. During his first run, I worked a phone bank, dialing number after number to encourage American citizens to vote. The morning I read of Obama’s victory, big tears of joy splotched the thin broadsheet of the newspaper’s front page.

These past two months, along with many fellow citizens, I’m hard-pressed to keep alit the flame of hope that President Obama ignited.

But his farewell speech provided oxygen. In it, I recognize six elements of yoga that my personal practice and professional teaching have held true:

1. “And that’s what I want to focus on tonight, the state of our democracy,” President Obama said. “Understand democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued, they quarreled, and eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The idea that, for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.”

In the Bhagavad Gita, one of yoga’s guiding texts, the warrior Krishna says,

“When he sees all beings as equal
in suffering or in joy
because they are like himself,
that man has grown perfect in yoga.”

Commonly translated as “union” or “one”, with connotations of deep acceptance, yoga solicits harmony within and among difference. In the postures of asana, breath yokes with the body’s movement. In life, we bond in service with our natural and human communities.

2. In his speech, Obama spoke the word “heart” four times including, “Hearts must change.”

The heart, referred to as the heart center in yoga, is the seat of wisdom. Wisdom, from “wit,” can be traced back to an Indo-European root shared with the Sanskrit word “veda,” meaning knowledge. Sanskrit is a first language of yoga. “Veda” relates to the Latin word for “see.”

Whether we’re folding forward leading with the “heart center,” “opening the heart” in a backbend, “leading with the heart” and letting the head trail as we unwind from a twisting posture, the heart is prime in yoga.

Yoga in the family.

3. Having outlined threats to American democracy, Obama offered a course of action: participation.

“All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging. Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning — with our participation, and with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge.”

The practice of yoga exists on paper and in videos, in online and face-to-face instruction. The poses and aphorisms mean nothing, however, without the breath and body of real people.

Yoga calls for consistent action without expectation of result.

Off the mat, we express this by showing up to the work we have in the world, taking responsibility in our jobs, our relationships and neighborhoods.

4. The President urged the people to, “Show up, dive in, stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you’ll lose.”

Yoga demands tenacity, to step onto the mat and try new things, to see what happens, or to take a deep breath before responding to a real-life provocative situation.

Keep up. Keep going. Demonstrate resolve.

5. Like a great yogi, Obama reminded us that life is change. Each breath is unique. Each moment holds possibility. Change is assured.

“You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark,” the President said, “that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace, you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward.”

Day-to-day, yoga’s physical practice reveals the truth of change when the same pose elicits a new sensation in the same body. Through weird shapes, energetic effort and profound stillness, in yoga we tickle the feet of the gremlin of fear, and befriend it.

6.  In yoga, we choose to believe in possibility. Otherwise, we’d never keep at it.

This belief is fueled by love, love for our one precious life, love for the notion that all are one, and love for the wish that all beings may be happy, healthy and free from suffering.

“Yes, we can,” the President said. “Yes, we did,” he noted. “Yes, we can,” he exhorted.

We face uncertainty. We’re paying attention. We must honor our connections.

Thank you, President Obama, from the bottom of this yoga teacher’s heart.

Poem: Salutation

Pleased to have “Salutation” included in The Absence of Something Specified.

This poem arose during a dry Central Valley winter, when we were all waiting and hoping for rain in northern California. To distract from the noise of nearby Highway 50, I’d hung small temple bells from the bare branches of the pistache trees planted in the narrow strip between sidewalk and street.

I was also thinking about how we see. My dear dog, Molly, had rapidly gone blind from glaucoma. Her veterinarian would pull out a model of the eye on our visits to him, teaching us about the wondrous organ.

This poem passed through many versions before settling into this bony shape.

Salutation

rivers disappear w/o weather
determined salmon
swim into dry dirt
following
their peculiar compasses

bells ring to winter storms
when wind shakes bared
arms of pistache trees
rain drips
from down spouts to tick tock
night

people invent
understandings of death
while looking in one
another’s eyes
for pinpoints of dry light
our

marble organs of sight are
so many planets set
in galaxies
of
cadged
bone

Forest Bathing as a Mindfulness Practice

Curious about the mindfulness practice of “forest bathing,” I looked into it recently for My Little Bird.

The Benefits of Forest Bathing

“STAY AWHILE,” the trees call out in Mary Oliver’s poem, an invitation to “forest bathing.” The term, translated from the Japanese shinrin-yoku, means immersing yourself in the woods; it’s an attentive way of being among trees, under the sky, on the earth.

“Forest bathing is slowing down and connecting with nature with all your senses and it’s something you can do very close to home,” says Melanie Choukas-Bradley. The author and naturalist leads forest bathing walks in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park and regional open spaces. Forest bathing, she says, is linked to other mindfulness practices like yoga, Tai Chi and meditation, “but there’s another dimension to it because you’re feeling a connection with nature.”

That connection Choukas-Bradley describes seems to reduce stress and foster well-being. Studies conducted at Japan’s Chiba University, Center for Environment, Health and Field Services and described in the book Your Brain on Nature, found “that spending time within a forest setting can reduce psychological stress, depressive symptoms and hostility, while at the same time improving sleep and increasing both vigor and a feeling of liveliness.”

Guides like Choukas-Bradley facilitate forest bathing on the walks they lead.

“You’re engaged with nature and nature has a slow sweet pace, and it’s very rejuvenating to be around trees and listen to birds and smell the autumn smells from the earth and just feel fully alive.” She adds, “If we’re only engaged electronically, it’s not enough.”

At the heart of forest bathing is quieting the mind and awakening the physical senses. And it works, says Barnesville, Maryland artist and avid walker Tina Brown who took her first forest bathing walk with Choukas-Bradley in Rock Creek Park in October. The women have collaborated on guides to the plants of Sugarloaf Mountain.

“We were asked to focus on a tree,” said Brown, “to look closely at the bark and to pay attention closely to the stream, the water and rocks and smells and sounds.”  Choukas-Bradley, Brown said, invited participants to dig deep into their immediate experiences.

A typical forest bathing walk might begin with breath awareness practices or a poem, drawing people into the present moment. What’s called an “invitation” follows, a suggestion to explore a quiet spot alone and notice with all the senses, listening, observing, savoring scents and touching leaves and stones.

The mental and physical benefits of spending time in nature through forest bathing can be felt in a nearby park.

“I’m always encouraging people to connect with their own backyard or park down the street,” says Choukas-Bradley, “to find a place of natural beauty that’s very close to where you live and visit as often as you can. It’s a form of intimacy with nature.”

She described her own special sitting spot in Rock Creek Park. The day we talked, she had just seen a kingfisher in the stream.

“It’s so rejuvenating to walk through this forest in a park created in 1890. The trees are huge. I am so intimate with this place that all of the changes that I see over time are incredibly meaningful. It’s like any relationship, the more you know a person the more you love the person; it’s the same thing with nature.”

Spending the time is key. Forest bathers set aside cell phones. They suspend conversations on politics, movies and work. They let go the need to identify a bird or classify a blossom. There are no miles to log. Wonder reigns.

“When I lead walks,” says Choukas-Bradley, “my favorite moments are when everyone gets quiet. We’re looking at Virginia blue bells blooming; I love it when people stop talking and just feel the quiet moments of pure reverence for nature and pure awe.”

A survey sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and cited in an article on forest bathing in The Washington Post states that Americans spend 87 percent of their time indoors and 6 percent in an enclosed vehicle, on average.

Choukas-Bradley believes forest bathing could shift that percentage, inviting more and more people to re-connect with the nature around them.

“Our culture and our way of life separates us from nature, so we have to work at it a little bit. It’s a practice like anything else. If it’s important to you and you make time for it, the rewards are boundless.” she says.

Ready for a dip into forest bathing?

As with any mindfulness practice, you can start small, with five or ten minutes. Next time you’re walking to the train, detour under a tree. Pause. Touch the bark. Lean against the trunk.

Or pause on a bench during errands. Lift your face and watch the clouds, feel the breeze on your cheeks and mist from a nearby fountain. Smell the fresh-cut grass.

Or, on a walk with a friend through a park, agree to drift in opposite directions for a few minutes, smelling the air, collecting fallen leaves. Then reconvene and share what you observed.

Participants in Choukas-Bradley’s walks range from 20 to 80.

“It’s for anybody who enjoys nature and wants to get outside, de-stress,” says Brown, the artist. “You’re not thinking about anything but being present.”

A wonderful aspect of the natural world is that it’s vast enough to absorb our moods.

“When despair for the world grows in me/and I wake in the night at the least sound/in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,” writes Wendell Berry in his poem The Peace of Wild Things, “I go and lie down where the wood drake/rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.”

The peace of wild things is a form of resting in the world. It’s a cleansing: Forest bathing both restores and rejuvenates.

“It’s healing and it’s celebratory,” Choukas-Bradley says. “There’s a great joy in feeling alive in the forest or in the field or any natural setting. It’s true that it’s comforting if you’re troubled or depressed, but if you come feeling happy your happiness will be enhanced by connecting with natural beauty.”

Life. Change.

Every time I practice viparita karani, “legs-up-the-wall,” or invite a student to make the shape, I recall my first yoga class. It changed my life in so many ways.

“How a Yoga Inversion Led to a Life Conversion,” reprinted from elephant journal in a slightly different version.

“Imagine your nipples like headlights pointing straight forward.”

The year was 1995. We still used a blender to mix margaritas and milkshakes, not green smoothies. “Warrior 1” was not yet standard American English. I was wobbling through my first-ever yoga class.

The teacher continued her driving metaphors. In the exercise room at the YMCA, she guided us into a seated twist and suggested we imagine looking over our shoulder to park a car. This was before a screen in the dashboard told you where the rear bumper is.

The teacher seemed old to me, confident. Now I’ve reached the age I estimate her to have been, mid-forties. She had medium-length dark brown hair, creamy skin and a mischievous look in her eyes. I trusted her and did what she said. When she placed us in viparita karani, with legs up the wall and back flat on the floor, my perspective on my body literally changed. “Picture a jack-knife,” she said, urging us to nestle our buttocks closer to the wall.

I don’t remember this woman’s name, but she changed my world. It’s as if I hopped on a bus to a part of town that had always been there but was brand new to me. Everything I saw and experienced in the 90 minutes assured me that life was for the curious. Everything I heard annotated my previous learning. I was a teacher, too, of literature and writing, and recognized in this yoga teacher the combination of creativity and logic, tempered with the caring that makes a teacher effective.

That tiny word—“yoga”—is a small submarine that took me into the deep ocean of physical, philosophical and ethical explorations.

One class. One teacher. New life. I thank my BFF for suggesting the Y. I’m grateful I accepted.

After high school, apathy had slid between Phoebe and me. Both bright but unfocused, pretty but not gorgeous, talented but not genius, we drifted to different regions, Phoebe to the Midwest, I to California, searching no doubt, as youngest siblings do, for someone or something to create a surface on which we could recognize ourselves. When we reconnected by chance, literally bumping into each other at an art gallery in Ann Arbor, the university town where our husbands were temporarily studying, we served as each others’ looking glass.

Always ahead of the curve, Phoebe’s older sister was teaching yoga in Washington, D.C. When she came home from college we admired her insouciance and elegance, her red Chuck Taylor high tops and the scarf draped across her collarbones. When Phoebe saw the YMCA class advertised, she pressed me to attend. I was a jogger with a sporadic weight-lifting habit left over from rowing crew in college. But I’d been studying Buddhism for 10 years and figured cross-legged yogis might have something in common with meditators. I agreed to one class. “I don’t think this is for me,” I said meeting up with Phoebe at the gym’s entrance on West Washington Street, clad in gray sweatpants and a “Coffee is my friend” t-shirt.

Curious about yoga in the last century, I searched online. There you can find an interview with Sting from the December 1995 Yoga Journal. As a Gen-X-er, Sting is one of my heroes.

“I feel it is a path that is involved enough to keep developing,” the singer tells Ganga White. “It’s almost like music in a way; there’s no end to it.”

In high school, Phoebe set the volleyball and I spiked it. She is lithe, a dancer and a pianist. I’m wiry, built for long walks and swimming. By the time I attended the Iyengar class at that Ann Arbor YMCA, years of stooping over children’s desks had wrecked my posture. Photos in the family album say I’d once been at home in my body, climbing on monkey bars, racing across the neighborhood park with my dog, playing the role of Athena in the fourth grade show. Along the path from adolescence to adulthood, I became alienated from my six-foot frame.

Experiencing savasana on that Michigan night with my childhood friend, I was 10 years younger than Sting when he started yoga. I get what he’s saying, though. I’m a writer, aware even in my teens that I’d stay on a creative path by hook or by crook. Yoga is practical and myriad. Since that first class, I’ve studied with dozens of teachers. When I felt ready to teach yoga, I trained first at a small Sacramento studio where I was a regular student. One of the guest teachers, Richard Rosen, emphasized that yoga asana is preparation for meditation. I’d discovered this in home practice. A strong body and fluid breath lead me into stillness. A year and a half later, Cyndi Lee’s advanced teacher training, with its Buddhist strand, brought me full circle in my work and personal lives.

When Phoebe visits our hometown of Washington, D.C. and we meet up for coffee, the word “join” comes to mind. On a lark, I joined her for that yoga class. In the more than 20 years since, yoga — which teachers love to remind us translates as “union”—has joined me with friends, students, ideas, opportunities and insights that make me who I am.
“I’ve learned to trust in the power of love,” Sting says. “Love for oneself, love for the people you’re with, your family, your friends. Love for simplicity, love for the truth. I think that without love, none of it makes any sense.”

When one of my yoga students enters viparita karani—that legs-up-the-wall pose—I notice the surprise and delight that accompanies any inversion. The world can change in a moment. Or at least our perspective on it.

 

 

 

Why Yoga Stanza?

Isn’t that, after all, what a stanza is for,
So that after a night of listening, unwillingly,

To yourself think, you can walk, slightly hungover,
Through some morning market, sipping tea,
An eye out for that scrap of immaculate azure.

– Robert Hass

Three years ago, I launched Yoga Stanza. Happy anniversary, dear blog!

I was curious to identify intersections of poetry and yoga. I wanted to highlight the quotidian. After being a dedicated journal keeper since childhood, I discarded old notebooks to live openly online.

What a wonderful surprise that you all have taken the time to read these offerings. Thank you, thank you!

 

So, why the name Yoga Stanza?

Well, the yoga part…that’s obvious.

And, stanza? A stanza is a group of lines forming a unit in a poem.

“Stanza” derives from a 16th century Italian word meaning “standing in place.” Stanza is also interpreted as a roomThis poem from Robert Haas, is a keen example of that.

I hoped this blog to be a little room, a virtual studio, an alcove or nook, where you could read something inspiring, enhancing, amusing, comforting or just plain lovely.

(Thank you to YS’s guest bloggers and contributing poets and presses for your posts!)

In yoga, an asana is a posture. (There are lots listed on this site, often paired with poems.) The word also contains the meaning of a “seat.”

With each asana, we take a seat in a moment in time in a place in time. We inhabit where we are with dignity, compassion and integrity.

The seat can be a spot in line at DMV or in the center of the sofa flanked by friends. The seat can be in an easy chair with a cat on the lap or on a bicycle zipping down a hill.

Both the words “yoga,” often translated as “union,” and “stanza” invite reflection on time and space.

We are one : we are two.

We are inside : we are outside.

This is now : that is then.

Where is the bubble in the center of the carpenter’s level that marks equilibrium?

Where is your fulcrum in the see-saw of a life?

In poetry and in yoga, — in life —, what is the tension between unbounded creativity and defined structure? Where can we be strong and pliant? Still and fluid?

This morning in a lesson I offered to students ways to feel into the expansiveness of an exhale. The students are entering their sixth month of practice with me and we’re looking at nuances of breath.

An exhalation is not truly an emptying the way all the air can be squeezed from a balloon or a bag. There can be on the exhalation an enlargement, an elongation, even an amplification.

Every exhalation contains qualities of an inhalation.

Every inhalation contains qualities of an exhalation.

Alive, we breathe one breath. Stitches along a seam of time.

Similarly, all the world’s poems are part of one whole poem.

The end of each poem tones beyond the last uttered syllable of word, the quiet between the exhale and the inhale.

And that resting pose, savasana, that concludes a yoga class? It’s but a pause in the ongoing rhythm of who we are and what we do.

And who you are and what you do.

Like many of you, I’ve seen breath leave a body for a final time. Not an exhalation, that ultimate moment is more of a departure, a separation, a taking of leave. Afterward, all seems quiet, subdued.

Yoga Stanza, dear readers, is suspending her breath. I’m turning more attention to teaching: face-to-face, hand-to-body and heart-to-heart (as my teacher, Cyndi, puts it). You all know teaching yoga is my true joy.

I’ve returned to journaling with my favorite practice of keeping a commonplace book, transcribing passages from my reading to rediscover down the line and possibly weave into concepts for classes.

I’m practicing asana and meditation, breath awareness and pranayama and pratyahara, walking outside, cloud watching.

You can find me at home in the world. After all, It’s All Yoga – as the studio where I cut my teaching teeth shows.

Please take a moment to subscribe in the sidebar; you’ll receive any updates such as those delicious recipes!

You can also stay in touch:

Email: alexamergen(at)gmail(dot)com

Facebook: Simple, Joyful Yoga page or Alexa Mergen

USPS:  1703 West Washington Street, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425

Be well!

P.S. Peruse the blog’s past offerings. Posts are organized by topic and searchable by key word. Lots of good stuff here, all available (including the poems and recipes!) to share. Please do credit me and other contributors for our ideas: this project has been a labor of love. Love, Alexa