Evidence of Why

A poem has an architecture to it. If you put on special reader x-ray vision glasses, you can see the skeleton of it, the internal organization of sound and sense. The typed letters that compose words are a visible manifestation.

Atop and throughout a poem’s skeleton or frame are the flesh and circulatory systems that give it life.

Influenced by Louise Rosenblatt’s reader response theory, I believe a new poem is created when a person breathes it; the artifact of poem reanimates. Like the performance of an actor’s role, each occurrence of shared words varies depending on day, time, events, audience, speaker.

The physical postures of yoga, the asana, are like poems. “Make a shape and breathe into it,” my teacher and friend Michelle instructs. We study diagrams, directions and images of a posture then make it in space. The shapes are molds, casts, patterns. Georg Feuerstein says the “postures are psychophysical templates promoting symmetry, balance, and harmony, as well as inner peace.”

“My” Paschimottanasana does not look like this. Not even close. But I appreciate the possibilities!

The infinite possibilities of creative expression in yoga keep me returning.

The venerable art never gets old. For example, seated forward bends do not come easily to me. For two years, I’ve made Paschimottanasana an almost daily practice. It feels like that pose has a zillion moving parts. Yesterday, I tried making the shape with the soles of my feet flush against the wall’s baseboard. That small “edit” changed the pose.

Breathing into the intensity (an “ohhh” not “ouch” sensation) called on as much courage as I had to give; the pose became brand-new for me.

That quote attributed to Marcel Proust, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”? It’s true. Even if your eyes are closed and you’re toughing it out alone on the floor of your apartment at four o’clock on a hot Saturday afternoon, calling on Breath to be your friend.

I’m a slow poem person. My poems are mostly lyrical observations on the quotidian. It can take 10 years or more to feel ready to share one. My yoga is slow, too. Even when practicing or teaching what might be considered a “flow,” I seek to make the hour a collection of minutes and seconds and moments strung together like water beads. Fully present. Nothing missed. All relational.

I’ve been rereading Jane Hirshfield. She suggests that a poem is itself a compound word, that linked together, in association, the letters and words that form the poem result in another thing.

What is poetry but an attempt at making meaning?

What is asana but an experiment in being? 

Walking last evening, Matt, Tucker and I stopped to rest on a bench and look up at the sky. A white bird flew overhead. After a moment, we recognized it as a barn owl, perhaps starting its dusk rounds. Around us, people were carrying bottles of wine to join friends for dinner, toting bags of groceries, walking dogs, hailing taxis, pushing strollers. Trucks, bikes, cars and motorcycles spun past.

Watching an owl’s soundless passage against the darkening sky invites stillness in the viewers, an opportunity to inhabit the shape of being.

I say, Hail the unhurried, quiet arts of poetry and yoga! They are evidence of Why.

 

 

 

Wisdom and Knowledge

Knowledge and wisdom?

Where do the two intersect and diverge in the heart, body and mind?

When do you apply each?

Have you wondered?

Preparing for a movement, meditation and journaling workshop I’ll lead tonight, I’m thinking wisdom is akin to intuition, a synthesis of quantifiable knowledge and accrued direct experience. Through techniques of yoga, we’ll explore ways in which the facts that comprise knowledge could be expanded into wisdom.

I drafted these initial thoughts on knowledge and wisdom in a workshop at the 2014 National Association for Poetry Therapy conference. We were working from The Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler.

 

Wisdom wants to catch me in her net. When I walk in flowered fields of stillness or along the shoreline of contentment, she pounces from behind a tree trunk or a seal grey boulder.

I’ve escaped her so far though her indigo cloak of dreams blankets me at night and her stars of awareness make me look up. I know her sister Silence who lives as quietly as she can in a driftwood hut near Serenity Slough. I know her brother, Knowledge. He took me on a long expedition through the savanna of information, pointing out What and How to Use It.

Contentment sent me a letter last week. After pulling it from my copper mailbox, I almost threw it away. I thought it was junk mail. The envelope was plain white with a glassine address window. The name listed was “Alexandra.” There was no return address. No one but my grandmother called me by my full name, and she’s been dead ten years.

This summer, I’m going on a rafting trip with Responsibility. If I make it to the take out spot without a dunk in the river, well, maybe then I’ll stay put next time Wisdom waves her wand. – Alexa

Gendler’s book is helpful for anyone teaching yoga or writing. If you pick it up, try your hand at your own writing with a quality you’re curious about. Just as yoga asanas allow us to take the shape of animals such as cobras and dogs, and other living things such as trees, writing allows us to slip into the minds of the characters we create whether people or personifications. The longer I live, the more I value empathy and appreciate how we’re gifted as humans with the power of imagination to practice it.

What are you thoughts on the relationship of wisdom and knowledge? Tell a friend.

 

 

Courage of loving

There is something powerful about allowing one’s heart to be so open that other beings can sense it….Many yoga postures give us the opportunity to release fear from our hearts….When fear exerts its grip, it can be an overpowering force that keeps us closed and therefore separated from the brilliant opportunities to connect that constantly surround us….Fear lives in us as tension, and asana postures are designed to release tension from our bodies. The absence of tension is the absence of fear. And the absence of fear signifies the presence of joy, love, and open-heartedness.

Myths of the Asanas, Alanna Kaivalya and Arjuna van der Kooij

Gusty winds may exist

A poem found this week among old notes. Rereading it, reworking it, I remember pulling off the road to jot the initial draft down following a visit to Abiquiu, New Mexico. Great spaces for cloud gazing, letting in and letting go.

(Dear Reader: Always carry a small notebook, in case!)

Gusty Winds May Exist

The way a cloud casts a shadow
over hills of pinon pine calls to mind

times we are apart. Love wants to-
getherness. River sea.

I cannot appease my heart but wait with it.
Love, no love–

fate sits by the ash tree. Clouds drift away
or dissolve: by and by all is light.

– Alexa Mergen

Noticing

The ultimate “home practice” of a yogi or a poet is noticing. And allowing transformation to occur. Through the practice of paying attention to body and heart every moment in every place is home.

We are body, breath, sound and stone.

Pine Peak After Rain

Rain clears. Air cools my skin, as if I’ve left a bath–
mist condenses into green-leaved drops.
Eagerly I observe, sing my songs in verse–
the whole of my body transformed into cold jade.

– Hyesim, translated by Ian Haight and T’ae-Yong Ho

Note: previously published in Magnolia & Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim  (White Pine Press, 2012); permission of Dennis Maloney

Take a cue from the poet: What have you observed? How has that changed you?

 

Sensing, feeling

During my 10 years in Sacramento, The Book Collector revealed many gems. One is Move and Be Moved published in 1980. I’m glad I brought the book along to D.C.

In poem-like descriptions Anne Lief Barlin and Tamara Robbin Greenberg suggest ways to move, alone and with others. Black and white photographs celebrate making shapes.

move and be moved

Stanley Keleman‘s introduction explains the difference between sensing and feeling. Rereading it yesterday reminded me of why I find teaching yoga one-on-one or in small groups effective and exciting. The personal attention allows for awareness of feeling, what Keleman calls “the whole action.”

Though Keleman does not use the word, I think of “empathy.”

In my experience, the three braids of imaginative engagement that yoga requires–mental, physical and emotional–provide an experience of empathy with the self that transfers to fellow humans, pets and the natural world. 

So often people confuse feeling and sensing. Sensing includes specific stimuli that provide information about a situation. The brain senses pressure, light, temperature and movement to position the body in space. Feeling, on the other hand, is a response from the cells. This visceral state involves the muscles, tissues, blood and nervous system in rhythmic and pulsating patterns and speaks the language of emotional expression….

The distinction between sensing and feeling opens the door to the two facets of contact: contact from the senses (objective reality) and contact from internal metabolism (subjective reality). These are ways of connecting with self and others. We make contact with ourselves through sensing where we are in space, by sensing the relationship of one part of ourselves to another part. The senses provide the images for patterns of movement. The other form of contact is the direct upwelling of warmth, liquidity and visceral motility which is expressed as tenderness, rage, anger, etc. This is emotional connection.

Actions and movements can be impersonal, a mechanical marvel wherein the body is an instrument for performance. But actions are incomplete unless they convey the meaningfulness of experience. Emotional knowledge liked to action is known as expression. The intent of internal movement and its expression is to arouse and generate response. Inner motility shapes the body, psyche and brain–one’s very life. Organismic movement reorganizes self-concept and self-image.

Life is a mobile, a pendulum, in which one is always trying to arrive at integration. We seek to maintain our uprightness, keeping the weight moving between two feet. Movement is not only muscular and cardiovascular but also gracefulness that comes from using oneself completely.

 

Try an experiment: Stand. Or sit on a chair. Sense your feet on the ground, bones and muscles holding the body. Place one palm on what we call the heart center, the area to the right of the beating heart. This motion may be familiar from reciting pledges. Let the hand linger. Notice the sensation of skin on cloth, the feet, the space above the crown of the head. Breathe, inhaling and exhaling for six full cycles. Return the hand to your side. Notice what you feel, inside. Choose one of the feelings and name it. Now replace the hand on the heart center, carrying with it that feeling, letting the movement be an expressive gesture of yourself. Pause. Return the hand to your side. Mentally let go of the named feelings and words. Stay present for a few more breaths.

 

 

 

 

Crocodiles and rain

Yesterday afternoon brought a steady, gentle bright shower that glistened the leaves.

Last night the sky cracked with lightning and thunder. Wind rolled the treetops in waves.

These contrasting rains reminded me of the effort and ease of yoga. And made me think of crocodiles.

In the darkness, a storm’s sounds surround the body.

Yoga (and poetry) require fearlessly looking in, listening deeply to the literal and metaphorical heart. We talk about surrendering to what is with the understanding that any physical or emotional unsettling will still. Change is the constant.

When a storm stirs the atmosphere as it did last night–and we’re safe and sound–there’s another opportunity to surrender, surrender to the movement of the external.

Curious to experience the duality of effort and ease?
One way is prone, in Crocodile, Makarasana. This pose can offer relief to the muscles of the back and the nervous system. Coming into the pose provides a reference to the effort that preceded it, whether physical or mental.

Or, for some, the pose itself presents an emotional or physical challenge. (Anytime any discomfort blurs into pain….stop!) This “I see” experience, tempered with steady breathing, can help draw that ever shifting line between effort and ease.

Sensations, like birds, need to be listened to and observed to be identified. Once named, they’re easier to recognize the next time.

Be a crocodile and notice how it feels. Here’s a version of the pose.

Come down to the front of the body, legs extended behind you. Let the front body sink into the support of the ground. Fold the hands to create a rest for forehead or chin. Breathe.

Do you believe, as the traveler and historian Herodotus did, that Egyptian plovers climb into the reptile’s mouth to clean its teeth?

 

 

 

Make space for home practice

Do you have room for a yoga home practice? Yes, you do. If I can do it, so can you.

Square footage in my apartment is limited to 573. Within that space are a kitchen with full-size range and dishwasher, a bathroom with a bathtub large enough for soaking, a stacked washer/dryer unit, a bed, two dog beds (Tucker likes variety), a bookcase, storage for husband Matt’s knife-making projects, clothes (including winter jackets and boots) and shoes for two tall people, files, books…you get the idea. You know what, though, it works.

Below are concerns I hear about space limitations and some ideas to consider.

I don’t have a spare room. My house is too small.

People I know who have a full home studio, or an extra room dedicated to yoga and meditation, love it. They may be the lucky ones. But a section of a room that’s used for multiple purposes works fine.

I can’t concentrate in my home.

Designate a particular space. That doesn’t mean the space is only used for yoga, but it is the space you go to for yoga. With private students, we might practice in the den, the living room, even the kitchen of their home, but when we’re there for yoga we set up the same way each time. In my little apartment, I have a space in the middle of the room. It works for me because it’s the most open space. With imagination, I picturing myself sitting down in the middle of a field.

My yoga gear is scattered all over the house.

Consolidate it in a basket or chest or on a shelf or a chest. I have a round basket that holds mat, blocks, strap, eye pillow and two blankets. Some students have a pile of towels or blankets in a closet that we pull out for props. Not all my private students use a mat. If you use a chair, have one in that space that is sturdy and proportioned for your needs. If you practice at a studio as well as at home, you might want to have a mat for home and a traveling mat.

My walls have art work hanging on them.

You don’t have to have an open wall. But walls are helpful for many poses, not the least of which is legs-at-the-wall, a pose that most people can practice every day with great results. Try removing the artwork and setting it aside for a few days. Then see how you feel about hanging it elsewhere.

I have too much furniture.

Re-home it. If you’re not sitting on it, you probably don’t need it. Space can be inspiring, and not just for astronauts.

Move cat to bed. Turn off TV. Vacuum floor. Practice yoga.

My floor is covered with dog hair/cat hair.

Mine, too! Vacuum. I now think of vacuuming as the start of my practice in a Thich Nhat Hanh-sort-of-a-way. (Don’t groan!) Pushing the machine around gives me time to ask myself what my intention is for practice that day–to breathe and relax? to unkink the neck? to strengthen shoulders? Whether or not I stay with the intention, it’s a first step. And the silence following the vacuum’s roar creates a different sort of space to move into. Plus a chore is done. And I appreciate my little apartment even more: the entire unit can be swept from one plug.

The baby next door is crying. The neighbor’s dog is barking.

What a great opportunity to practice non-attachment. Really. Bring your attention back to the space you’ve created and let all the rest go. Or, consider dedicating your practice to the baby (or its parents!) or the dog. They could likely use some kind thoughts. I don’t practice to music, but if you do, music might be helpful, too.

I don’t have room for an altar.

I don’t have an altar at all. I have had, in past homes, with photos and mementos that served as touchstones. These days, I want every moment to be this moment; objects that carry stories pull me away. However, if you find objects helpful add them to your consolidated supplies. Maybe a special candle holder and a small box of wooden matches. Or a vial of skin-safe essential oil that you dab on your palms. I do create a focal point when I lead workshops in public spaces: a scarf holding a bud vase of fresh flowers and stones given to me.

Culled from the search engine: an image of a corner shelf. A possibility if you want a perch for special things.

I don’t have a spare room. My house is too small.

Ah, here we are again.

Maybe you can find another space that still allows you the benefits of a focused personal practice. Sometimes I go down to the apartment house gym. This is a mirrored windowless rectangle adjacent to a roomful of weights and weight machines, a corridor to the pool.

When I’m alone there, the first thing I do is turn off one set of lights as a signal to myself that I’m arriving for a particular purpose. If I’m sharing the room, I leave the lights be and settle first thing into a quiet pose like a forward bend. The stillness serves as a signal to me to shift gears.

Other tricks to make a shared space feel private is to face in the same direction when you practice or to bring a small object such as a stone to set near the mat.  You might state a silent intention before beginning movement. This is similar to people you see in restaurants pausing to say a prayer over their food before lifting a fork.

Also, a special blanket just for your practice goes a long way toward creating a temporary home anywhere, anytime.

And isn’t that what yoga’s about: wholly inhabiting the world, alone and with others, with body, mind and heart, as given?

 

 

 

Embody the world

The Once and Future King is one of my desert island books. So when Alanna Kaivalya and Arjuna van der Kooij mention it in their Myths of the Asanas, they have my attention. Below is a beautiful passage from their book that encapsulates why I care so much about yoga and have made teaching one-on-one and in small groups my work.

How would it feel to be in the body of a centaur? Do you wonder?

Simply put, yogis embody the world. Using their bodies as tools, yogis put themselves into certain positions in order to understand the workings of the world around them. By doing so, they gain empathy, compassion, and sensitivity–qualities that contribute to a more elevated state of mind, known as chitta prasadanam in yogic scripture.

The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word yoga is “yoking” or “connecting.” One way of describing the state of yoga is a feeling of interconnectedness, in which we experience that a part of us exists in everything and vice versa. To understand this more fully, we try to resemble everything we know in the universe through our asana practice. This exploration can be likened to a story about King Arthur. As a young prince, Arthur thought that the most enjoyable part of becoming a king would be to rule over his kingdom. The wizard Merlin decided that Arthur would benefit from a powerful lesson. He changed the boy into different people, animals, and objects found within his kingdom, such as a peasant, a fish, a tree, the water, and a rock, so that Prince Arthur could understand what it was actually like to be those different beings and things. Arthur’s experience gave him the much-needed ability to put himself in others’ shoes. He began to understand that the most important job of being king is not to rule, but to serve.

Asana practice has a similar goal. We take the shape of the tree, the fish, the warrior, the turtle and the sage so that we can begin to understand their essential natures. We can literally feel the wisdom of the sage and the stability of the tree. We can feel the power of the warrior and the steadfastness of the turtle. As a result, we experience ourselves as more deeply connected with all of life around us. Through asana practice we can feel that our body is a microcosm of the universe.

The yogi is ready and willing to embody all states of existence, including ones that usually repulse mere mortals such as snakes, scorpions, and even death. Through yoga, we come to know the other as ourselves and ourselves as the other. This practice allows us the opportunity to dissolve the separation born from ego, along with the fear, cynicism, and isolation that sometimes go along with daily life. Feeling joy in coming to know the world, the journey of the yogi begins.

Several years ago, T.H. White was my companion on a memorable journey of friendship.