Intimacy, voice, community

We talked this morning about intimacy, voice and community in the final meeting of the inaugural series of Meditation, Movement and Verse. My thanks to the students who brought ideas, memories, rhythm, words, breath and bodies to seven months of weekly meetings. Wow, is all I can say. Your insights and poems confirm that intimacy, if anything, will save the world. Thank you for making yourselves known.

Be brave. Stop bullies.

This poem was begun several years ago when I first started thinking about how intimacy closes the gap between human and non-human animals, one human and another.

A World of Constant Motion

It starts with interrogate,
ends with preserve.

Between, answers
to why we let other species

dwindle. Do we sit ourselves
down on a straight chair

under bare bulbs of what’s left
to question—

When did battle take precedence
over beauty? When did what was

get displaced by now and next?
Preserve means to set aside

acres of jars shelved bright
with tomatoes and peaches picked

in warmer days for cold ones.
“In wildness is preservation”

Thoreau said. I say
intimacy saves the world—

creatures in burrows, beneath waves,
flowers fruiting without witness,

my back against yours as we breathe,
what we love named, and who.

– Alexa Mergen

Half moon + Marci Vogel

When I make–or attempt–half moon pose, ardha chandrasana, I feel like I am waking up to a new world. The pose requires tipping out of balance to regain equilibrium with changed perspective.

Playing along the American River, Sacramento.
Playing along the American River, Sacramento.

Entering this pose is like entering a poem, especially one that shifts among languages, in this case French and English.

As a writing teacher, I remind my students that they are their own first readers. As a yoga teacher, I remind my students that they are their own bodies’ experts. As a person, I want to remember that we are our own first friends and first lovers, our own first teachers and students.

Please enjoy this elegant poem. Marci and I shared the delight of studying Emily Dickinson with Michael Ryan at University of California-Irvine. More on Marci here.

 

When Not in Rome,

I awake early without

you who are

in a room all

apricot & cherry. In

Portuguese it’s very,

very poetic.

 

All those little bottles

carrying wisps of messages––

 

Don’t let me

translate these things:

the sailor, the harbor,

the shore. Go on,

 

take the boat. Take

the salt, take the whole

curved ocean. You know

you can’t live

what you were

living before.

 

– Marci Vogel

Note: Poem previously published in French in Levure Litteraire 8 and in Quiet Lightening’s Sparkle & Bling; used by permission of  the poet

Pair with: ardha chandrasana

Consider: How is the movement from one shape, asana, to another a translation of the body? How is the heart translating moment-by-moment our experience of connecting, understanding, loving?

Joy

Yoga identifies joy–a natural sense of well-being, gratitude, and peace–as the deepest aspect of what it means to be human. – Kelly McGonigal in Yoga for Pain Relief

In my experience, joy has been the most wonderful aspect of bringing yoga into daily life. Like a pilot light, this joy burns low and steadily, deep in the body, flaming extra bright when given the right fuel. The little warm light also persists through physical and emotional pain; its presence dispels fear.

tucker from above
Tucker understands English and Spanish words; he communicates with his body and his gaze.

One does not need a rubber mat to find this joy. My grandmother, Kay Mergen, had it. I glimpsed it when it left with her, extinguished by her final sigh. She was raised in desert spaces and learned early that everything is fragile and strong, singular and connected. Without any training in breath awareness or asana, she knew when to act and when to rest.

Animals embody joy. It’s no wonder so many yoga poses are named for them. They live themselves fully.

There’s not much mystery to any of this. The wisdom of joy is available to anyone. Wisdom from wit, a word related to veda, Sanskrit for ‘knowledge,’ and videre, Latin for ‘to see.’

There’s no mystery, but there is a secret. The secret is silence and stillness. So in yoga, we move the body then pause and feel, we slow the breath and listen, we clear the mind through concentration and sit with what remains.

Here: let more words be keys on wisdom’s iron joyfully clanging ring.

The word listen derives from Old English hlysnan pay attention to.’  The word see derives from Latin sedere sit.

Wisdom–knowledge gained from seeing, paying attention, listening, sitting still with heart.

Now, once you’ve unlocked the doors, throw away the keys. You may not need words at all. You’ve wisdom. And joy?

High school yoga

Guest post: Julie Goldman

I met Julie Goldman in 2007 when we were both teaching in the English department at C.K. McClatchy (CKM) High School. After the students went home, we’d go down to the tennis court to chat as we whacked balls imprecisely across the net. A few years later, Julie transitioned to teaching yoga in the PE Department, five classes a day, totaling two hundred-twenty students. 

Curious about how yoga happens in a high school setting, I asked Julie to share her thoughts. She’s also provided a full class sequence. Julie’s an extraordinary teacher–creative, caring, sincere and funny. Please enjoy her offerings.


Reflections of a high school yoga teacher

A few years back, I got an anonymous note from a student saying, “Since starting yoga, I have been having fewer mental breakdowns.” I taught high school English for six years before switching departments to PE, so personal notes mean a lot to me. Learning to “unplug” and be alone with thoughts, enjoying the silence of a room, simply focusing on breathing are all skills I try to teach the students.

Kids come for a variety of reasons. Some don’t like the competition of team sports, some are already athletes and know that yoga will complement their sport, others are self-proclaimed lazy bones and sign up for yoga because they think it will be easy. (They’re quickly surprised when they realize that this class can be a butt-kicker.)

While this is PE and our main focus is on the physical aspects of yoga, I think that the students are getting more out of the class than just a good workout. Yoga is a chance for students to quiet their minds, slow down and breathe. It is an opportunity to set aside the constant competition and judgment that comes with high school and to focus inward. It is a chance for them to notice the small things, pay attention more and practice mindfulness.

No other yoga teaching job affords this unique situation to have the same group of students five days a week for an entire school year. I get to be a part of their yoga journey, seeing the students develop and grow their practice.  While it is exciting to see a student who has been working on crow pose finally master it, it is even more exciting when a student tells me that they meditated at home after studying for a big test.

Yoga sequence for high school kids

Once a week the students write in journals for the first five minutes of class. This is the time I introduce them to one or two Sanskrit words.  I want them to know these so when they take a yoga class in the community, they aren’t confused and have heard the words before.

Opening and Warm-Up

  • Begin in child’s pose.
    • Count 10 slow breaths as a way of checking in and slowing down, preparing for practice.
  • Cat/cow with spinal balance – extend opposite leg and arm.
    • Remind them to think about how to stay in balance when life is pulling them in opposite directions, stay grounded.
  • Sun salutation
    • A reminder to acknowledge each day as a new opportunity to be present.
  • Down dog – lift one leg, open hips and “flip their dog.”
    • Reminder that we can be playful in our practice as well as in our life.
  • Hover in forearm plank while lifting one leg at a time and bringing knee to elbow.
    • This one is a killer for the abs and teaches them to perservere through difficult situations and not to give up, even when the going gets tough.

Partner Poses

I offer an alternative for anyone who may be uncomfortable being too close or touching another person. There are a few who “opt out” but as the year goes on and they see that these poses aren’t as scary or intimidating as they may have thought; they give it a try. 

  • Partner boat with feet together, holding hands either inside or outside of legs.
  • Seated straddle, back to back. One partner leans back while the other leans forward to their comfort level.
    • This gives them the opportunity to communicate with one another.
  • Sit cross-legged, facing one another with knees almost touching. Extend left leg out. Reach right arm behind back, towards left hip.  Reach left arm across chest towards partners right arm (behind their back).
    • This one is fun to do with a larger group.  Not only does it encourage cooperation and communication, it is a great stretch.
  • Warrior 2 back-to-back
    • Encourages the shoulders to open.
  • Reverse warrior, lunging away from one another holding top hands together, leaning away from one another to deepen the stretch.
  • For those who are up for adventure – double dog. One student comes into downward-facing dog, the other does down dog with feet on the partner’s low back, both partners are oriented in the same direction.

Final Relaxation

Savasana, the most important pose of the day. For some, this pose is a favorite, for others this pose is the biggest challenge because  they have to find stillness. Many of my students tell me that never in their day are they still and quiet, just “doing nothing.”  They are always “doing” something, even if that something is watching TV, checking their phone, etc. After the first few weeks of school, I see a change in them when it comes to final relaxation.  They seem to be embracing it more, seem to finally “get it” a bit more.

 

Back-to-sleep

“The breathing up one side of the body and down the other has helped me get back to sleep in the middle of the might. My body feels gifted.” When a student reported this, I knew I had to share this breath practice. My thanks to Kimberly Carson for introducing it to me.

Waking up in the night, checking the clock to see that it’s 1:30 am, 2:42 am, 3:56 am–too early to leave the blankets? It happens to me, too.

Position yourself on the back, face up. I call this “cowboy style,” resting,  looking up at the sky.

Let the feet be floppy, a little apart. Rest hands and arms anywhere that’s comfortable. Engage the imagination, eyes open or closed. Imagine breathing in through the sole of  the right foot, all the way up the leg, through the torso, arm, and neck, arcing over the crown of the head and back down down down the left side–neck, arm, hand, torso, hip, through the thigh and calf and out the sole of the left foot. You might notice a slight pause at the end of the exhalation. At the end of that pause, let the inhalation sweep in through that left foot, up the left side, over the crown and down, exhaling through the right foot. Tiny pause. And then breath returns through the sole of that right foot, up and around, out the left. In the left, up and around, out the right. In the right….

Vikram Seth’s All You Who Sleep Tonight is a lovely poem to learn, too. The soothing rhythm serves as a lullaby.

A billion beats

“In general, all mammals, from mice to whales, get a billion heartbeats over their lifetimes. Human beings have cheated the system: Thanks to myriad advances in the past century, we get well over two billion. But the quality of those later beats tends to dwindle.” – Sam Kean reviewing The Man Who Touched His Own Heart

At the end of yesterday evening’s Sunday Fundamentals class, I mentioned the billion beats statistic. With 11 of us in the room, we totaled 11 to 22 billion possible beats in our shared lifetimes. And as we each emptied into the quiet street, we joined other people with their own unique drumbeat of heart rhythm, and the other mammals, too, our dogs and cats waiting for us at home, and the polar bears and porpoises in their faraway biomes, their organs pumping life blood.

I’ve heard it said that yogis claim each person has an allotted number of breaths in a lifetime. Do we treat each beat of the heart, each lift and fall of a diaphragm as precious? Do we value clean air over convenience? Kind words over angry ones? When do we pause to watch a sleeping baby breathe, or a squirrel sunning on a branch?

Kean writes, “Nowadays the brain gets more popular attention, but most doctors throughout history considered the heart the more fundamental organ–the wellspring of both our emotions and our intellects.”

Wellspring heart, bountiful source of life and love.

 

Be true

Satya, the second yama, translates as truth. sunsetTruth emerges naturally from clarity: the more we know ourselves and accept ourselves, the greater the odds are that every word, action and thought will be in alignment with that self. Really, to be truthful is to be steadfast with yourself, your loved ones, the world.
Truth is a bond we choose to make with the heart.
Truth is the sister of Clarity, the Brother of Loyalty. Truth is Empathy’s great aunt, Courage’s grandchild, Love’s Best Friend.

Emily Dickinson gets us thinking about how to tell the truth.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant–
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
– Emily Dickinson

Ted Joans asks us to consider who tells the truth. What makes that act fearsome?

You have nothing to fear/from the poet
but the truth

Joans’s full poem here.

A Shed: Love Poem

A ShedIn the quiet setting of Green Gulch Farm, “A Shed” came together on a peaceful Saturday after spending the morning reading Bei Dao.

Writing a love poem feels to me like swimming through happiness. I hope the reader feels this, too. Find this love poem and more in Winter Garden. Send me an email to order the chapbook; you’re also welcome to share the poem in a class if you like. alexamergen(at)gmail(dot)com

 

A Shed

Between me and the world,

You are the unsigned road,
The plank bridge, eucalyptus trees.
You are the turn to the sea,
The cliff crest and clouds.

You are the horizon, waves,
A bobbing fishing boat.
You are all the grains of sand,
Sand dollars, a conch shell’s thrum.

You are a raptor, its screech,
Cattails, pussy willows and reeds.
You are blackbird, butterfly,
Dragonfly, box turtle, beetle.

You are the last full moon
Of the calendar year.
You are sunrise, dusk,
The very next day.

Between me and the world,

You are a tick tock clock,
Hammock, kettle set to boil.
You are water and faucet,
A splash, the filled cup.

– Alexa Mergen

Be considerate

Yoga’s ethical guidelines support and expand the practice of the postures.

How do they apply to 21st-century American life?

Ahimsa, the first of the guidelines, yamas, translates as non-harming and, by extension, kindness. Another way to think of ahimsa is through the English word “consideration.” “Consider” means “to examine” and may derive from the Latin word for “star.” To be considerate means to show careful thought, to not inconvenience or hurt others unthinkingly.  When we’re up for the challenge, we can attempt to go through the day considering each person, in fact every other living thing, as precious as star dust. We can breathe and pause, wonder a bit at the complexity of this world, and pull back from hasty judgements and cruel thoughts.

Best part? This, like all yoga, is a process. We’re all mean sometimes. We all hurt ourselves and others with words, thoughts and deeds. As a wise teacher told me long ago, everyone makes mistakes. They’re a problem when we make the same ones again and again. Breathe. Forgive. Let go. Be kind.

 

 

Here are  poems for thinking about thinking about kindness.

James Wrights’s beautiful A Blessing where human and animal meet.

“And the eyes of those two Indian ponies/Darken with kindness./They have come gladly out of the willows/To welcome my friend and me.”

Not harming another creature in David Wagoner’s Meeting a Bear.

“Meanwhile, move off, yielding the forest floor/As carefully as your honor.”

Kindness to oneself, practiced with the help of a friend, in Perie Longo’s Learning to Walk.

“Starts with sitting still, listening/to how time lengthens in silence./A friend moves off the horizon, her words/of comfort a hook to grasp, to cling to/like the steel traps I sometimes throw down/in disgust.”

On the Island of Recollection, my own poem about receiving kindness where you can.

“You learn to fish for kindness among/gentler creatures, agree to praise a god//on Sundays when offered a seat in the pew.”