Room for All

room |ro͞omro͝om|noun – space that can be occupied or where something can be done

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes a hatha yoga practice room as being a certain size and shape with a well nearby and “in a country where justice is properly administered, where good people live, and food can be obtained easily and plentifully.”

Seated in such a room, yoga practice begins. The text advises that “The following six bring speedy success: — Courage, daring, perseverance, discrimination, knowledge, faith, aloofness from company.”

Everything begins with a space that can be occupied, where something can be done.  A room.

Of asana the Pradipika says, “It should be practiced for gaining steady posture, health and lightness of body.

 

Dances and Wolves

“The dance is the mother of the arts. Music and poetry exist in time; painting and architecture in space. But the dance lives at once in time and space. The creator and the thing created, the artist and the work are still one and the same thing.” – Curt Sachs, World History of the Dance

“The point of all this is that the woods is a hard place to get on, and yet the wolf survived.” – Barry Lopez, Of Wolves and Men

Dance is especially suited to tell the tale of a wolf, engaging as it does the human viewer into a compression of time and space.

The existence of wolves, and their continued existence in North America, is a narrative through time–the history of changing human values–tied with space–the shifting use of land by man, the sciences of natural history, weather, geography and ecology.

One of OR-7’s pups.

Inspired by OR-7, the wolf that traveled into California from Oregon, Bruce Forman created a performance-length poem and collaborated with musicians and choreographers to stage it. He hired me to edit the poem, working especially on language and pacing. When I saw the potential for environmental education, I donated my time to create a curriculum guide for classroom use.

Preview the performance here.

Recent news on OR-7: he’s being re-collared for tracking after he found a mate…and had pups.

 

Light (Verse) on Yoga

Certainly, yoga teachers can be funny.  After all, humor refers to qualities of the body. So, settle into a comfortable seat and enjoy a chuckle.

Photo by Vanessa Vichit-Vadakan
Photo by Vanessa Vichit-Vadakan

ODE TO ASANA

Just look at all these asanas!
Who’d ever guess so many was?
There’s Mountain, Diamond, Moon and Tree
There’s Frog and Locust, Lotus, Bee.There’s Dog and Rabbit, Cat and Mouse
The Fish’s Lord and Indra’s spouse
There’s Monkey Chief and Wolf and Deer
There’s Hero, Baby, Dancer, Seer.

There’s those who scare us with their style
Like Scorpion or Crocodile …
Or who like Snail and Tortoise beat
A hasty into shell’s retreat.

There’s Lion, Tiger, Bear, oh my!
A bovine Face and Firefly
A Hare, a Snake, a Goat, an Ant
A Bull, a Horse, an Elephant.

And birds? They put on quite a show:
There’s Rooster, Parrot, Cuckoo, Crow
Yes, hear them twitter, coo, and squawk
There’s Crane and Pigeon, Vulture, Hawk.

They gabble, whistle, chatter, cluck
There’s Ostrich, Sparrow, Goose, and Duck
And Eagle, Peacock, Heron, Swan
The flocks of yogic Audubon.

There’s man-made stuff to keep us loose:
A Plow, a Scale, a Staff, a Noose
A Bridge, a Bed, and Half-a-Boat
(However does it stay afloat?)

A Wheel, a Ball, a Bell, a Lamp
A Trumpet, Swing, a Flag, a Clamp
A Gate Latch, Girdle, Goblet, Tank
A Yoke, a Wagon, Scissors, Plank.

And if you want to fight us, Bub?
We’ve got an Axe, a Mace, a Club
We warn you that we have no fear
Not with Arrow, Trident, Spear.

There’s Fortunate and Brave and Fierce
There’s one’s that Steady, Firm, and Pierce
But some of them … we’re not so sure
Like Headless, Celibate and Pure.

They’re East and West, and in a knot
They’re twisted, straight and in a squat
Face up and down and on the side
(For this we’re getting certified?)

They’re pendulous and in a split
They go one way, then opposite
On elbows, shoulders, knees and head
And in the end … we fall down dead.

Don’t worry though, we’re soon awoke
We’re just pretending that we croak …
Now class is done, at last we’re free
Just don’t forget the teacher’s fee.

Richard Rosen, published with permission of the poet

Global conversation

Laughed and smiled when I read this op-ed by Nicholas Kristof after writing yesterday’s post. He begins,

What use could the humanities be in a digital age?

University students focusing on the humanities may end up, at least in their parents’ nightmares, as dog-walkers for those majoring in computer science. But, for me, the humanities are not only relevant but also give us a toolbox to think seriously about ourselves and the world.

Kristof places the need for empathy into a global context. Check it outLetters in response to the Kristof piece add to the conversation.

Dog walking taught me plenty about people, what they value and how they choose to be. The experience gave me practice in empathy and problem-solving as well as lots of time to reflect.

Like teaching in the humanities, and teaching yoga, it’s a job that satisfies body, heart and mind. No matter how many machines we habituate ourselves to, people –all animals–want to be acknowledged by a greeting voice and a gentle touch, to know that who they are and what care about matters to someone else, even for just a 55-minute English class or a 20-minute stroll. And, somehow, time attending lovingly  to another holds within it the the potential for truth, beauty, justice and knowledge. This is necessary.

In-feeling through yoga, books and a necktie

In class, as I walked among the rows to observe students, I found myself saying, “I’m here to be your eyes.” The day before I had run into a former colleague at the studio as she exited the previous class. We had worked together years earlier at an animal rescue organization where I designed and developed a humane education program. Seeing a former colleague spurred me to think about how an English teacher/pet sitter/writer decided to dedicate herself to yoga. Quickly, it made sense: All the working titles represent paths to understanding others.

My background is in literature and the program’s premise was built on the work of literary theorist Louise Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt proposed that a reader engages empathetically with a text through imaginative response to characters and situations. I chose 13 illustrated children’s books and created question-based curriculum guides. (I met terrific children’s book authors like Susan Boase). After in-person training, volunteers brought the books to their communities–homeless shelters, day camps, animal shelters, classrooms–to encourage students to think about how an animal uses body language to communicate. Our hope was that, with careful guidance, students would learn to observe with sensitivity and imagine others’ ways of being and feeling.

Thinking about seeing brought to mind hours spent writing poetry with inmates in a maximum security prison. When I greeted them with, “It’s nice to see you” they’d reply, “It’s nice to be seen.”

We ask children to listen. (Listen up! Listen to me!) They desire to be listened to. Animals are less likely to ask to be listened to (with the exception of a cat requesting kibble!). And the species gap makes them more of a challenge to hear. We can take time to see them.

This puts me in mind of Georgia O’Keeffe saying, “…nobody sees a flower — really — it is so small — we haven’t time — and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time.”

We can listen on the fly. The kids are in the backseat while driving. We call a loved one long distance while we sort laundry. One partner’s washing the dishes while the other reads the paper aloud. We send a text while eating lunch and checking email. But how often do we really see each other?

What spurred me to write this was a story told to me by a friend. He was walking along his usual route near his office when he recognized a young man who’d earlier been asleep in the bushes. The man approached him holding a neck tie and asking for help. Initially reluctant, my friend approached. The young man was requesting assistance tying a knot in his tie; he had a job interview. The friend obliged. Picture the intimacy of a stranger tying a tie for another as a father would for a son. This action was a form of Yoga, being present.

So, why did an English teacher/pet sitter/writer turn to yoga? The more I study and the more I learn, the more I believe Yoga is a means to strengthening empathy in myself and others. The animals, the poems, the allusions and references can come into the practice of asana, breath and meditation. But it’s the simple act of observing with non-judgmental and focused attention, with what we Yoga teachers sometimes (confusingly, perhaps!) call “soft eyes,” that can lead to Einfühlung, in-feeling, the German word we translate as empathy. Yoga brings looking, listening, touch and feeling into the same room for a little while. Along with pets and books, it offers education in being humane.

 

Heartwood

Why practice hatha yoga? Richard Rosen told a couple dozen of us gathered in the space of It’s All Yoga that the original yogis sought three things:

A long life ensures more time to practice getting better at the other two. And life was considered something to enjoy, the world seen as suffused with creativity and beauty. The day before Rosen’s talk, I’d seen this pine growing among granite boulders at Silver Lake in California’s Sierra. Photo by Matt Weiser The roots reach over the rock and seem to soften into it. In places it’s difficult to differentiate plant and stone so closely connected they are.

The breathing, meditation and asana that make up Yoga offer opportunities to find the closest connection between this and that–active & inert, moving & still, plant & mineral, up & down, soft & hard, here & there–until the notion of oppositions dissolves.

We teachers talk about what flow means. In a hot yoga or vinyasa flow class the expectation of flow might be a series of poses performed consecutively. These sequences are thought to loosen and strengthen the body.

Or a flow class could be a series of smooth transitions among shapes, holding and unfolding, linking moments of stillness into a continuous stream to loosen and strengthen the body and mind.

This tree is in motion; the stone is changing. They are flowing, in a way, through their own long lives. We humans, with our senses of consciousness, have the ability to note change. This is a form of power. Along with noticing individual changes, we map connections among changes.

Think about any type of work–science, writing, psychoanalysis, coaching, scholarly studies, cooking, medicine, engineering, law, management, teaching, dog training…the list is endless–every field requires an observer who links what was with what is and imagines what will be. We humans are creatures of time. The more time we have to contemplate that fearlessly, the closer we may come to understanding something.

Yoga (hatha, as I understand it this Tuesday morning) helps strengthen the body  so we can contemplate without the distractions of aches and pains. Why contemplate? Because the world is full of beauty. This brings us to what might be wonderfully circular reasoning: We contemplate to savor the beauty of the world; the beauty of the world inspires us contemplate. Or does contemplation make the world beautiful?

It’s worth a little stretching to find out.

In a tree, the strong heartwood is closest to the trunk’s center and helps support the crown amid windy storms. I’ve found in practicing and teaching Yoga an analogous effect in the human body. The heart center withstands the stresses placed by emotional storms on body and mind. Contemplation, breath meditation, mindfulness, asana flow–however you call it–taps into that deep powerful center that has the potential to support us.

Virabhadrasana I + Sam Hamill

Raising arms overhead in Warrior I seems to free the wings of the shoulders and lift the heart to worlds away.

Black Marsh Eclogue

Although it is midsummer, the great blue heron

holds darkest winter in his hunched shoulders,

those blue-turning-gray clouds

rising over him like a storm from the Pacific.

 

He stands in the black marsh

more monument than bird, a wizened prophet

returned from a vanished mythology.

He watches the hearts of things

 

and does not move or speak. But when

at last he flies, his great wings

cover the darkening sky, and slowly,

as though praying, he lifts, almost motionless,

 

as he pushes the world away.

 

Sam Hamill

Note: previously published in Finding the Way Home (White Pine Press, 2010);  permission of Dennis Maloney

Pair with: Virabhadrasana I

Speak: Notice the break, mid-sentence, between second and third stanzas.

Consider: how standing in stillness allows us to watch the heart of things.

Morphology

“I am that,” Lalla says.

In a partner pose, especially when matched with someone I don’t know well, apprehension turns to delight. Someone is leaning onto my back…and it’s okay. I’m weighing into someone else’s back…and it’s okay. We’re supporting each other to make a single tree…and it’s okay. It’s more than okay because in those moments I am reminded that connection makes us alive.

Every creature is, in some sense, connected to and dependent on the rest,” writes Lewis Thomas in The Lives of a Cell.

A person (speaking for myself here) can be aggravating, stinky, unreliable, disappointing, self-centered, arrogant, mean, loud or aloof and they’re still here. And they’re me. And I am them. You are. I am. We are. Whether you’re talking biology or linguistics, it’s morphology.

For a few years, when I lived in a single family home in quiet neighborhood, I called myself an urban hermit and spent a lot of time in a hammock under an elm tree musing about life and writing poems and stories. No complaints.

Now I live across the street from an interstate highway in a second-storey loft with a balcony overlooking a busy parking lot. As soon as I step foot on solid ground I am caught up–just another fish –in the great school of humanity.

As a solitary, my connection to others was largely imagined, prompting a mystical approach to the oneness of nature and human nature. In midtown, the connection is messier than that. The homeless man rummages the dumpster late into the night and scratches gibberish on scraps that he scatters in the alley. The delivery drivers arrive with fresh food for the neighboring grocery store at 4:30 am clanking their trolleys and stacking pallets. These things cannot be ignored.

Allying myself with a redwood or a lone wolf is oh-so-deliciously-comfortable for me. Give me a cushion and a cave, a spring for fresh water and a berry bush and I will haven. (“Haven” ought to be a verb.) My heart is stretched in new ways by acknowledging that life relies on someone driving the highways in the predawn hours with boxes of lettuce, and that the line between coherent prose drafted in front of a computer and gobbledegook written on cardboard with a Sharpie is a fine one.

We are all organisms, two holes–one for intake, another for output–fore and aft on a trunk augmented with movable appendages. Yoga exercises heart and brain, especially when we work in a pair, to remind us that we can be creatures who are part of something beyond ourselves, a nexus of life and lives. Touching.