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.

Breath inside the breath

Practicing breath awareness, the tiny pause at the bottom of an exhalation is the small space where movement and stillness merge.

It often makes me think of this poem.

The next time you breathe out, linger. Ride the exhalation a little longer, a surfer skimming into shore.

Are you looking for me?

Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
you will not find me in the stupas, not in Indian shrine
rooms, nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding
around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables.

When you really look for me, you will see me instantly –
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.

Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.

– Kabir

Close with animals

There are so many reasons I am grateful to yoga, its study and practice, the students and teachers I learn from. They include less physical pain, easier breathing, healthier digestion, better sleep, happier relationships and more joy.

Topping them all is a greater intimacy with the natural world.

Practically, improved balance and proprioception (essentially body awareness) allow me to enjoy hiking more. A couple of years ago when I slipped on a slick rock and took a tumble in the Yuba River I escaped with no more than a gash on the chin. I attribute that to falling fluidly. I’d had some bad falls in my twenties, including mild concussions. Slipping in and out of equilibrium as we do in asana has helped me cooperate with gravity. (I’m six foot one, so when I fall it’s a long way down.)

On a more cryptic level, being at ease generally, a result of millions of practice moments in breath and meditation, and a resulting ability to listen and still, has brought me into a greater intimacy with the non-human world than I could have hoped for as a little girl observing ants at Folger Park on D.C.’s Capitol Hill, stepping outside on a summer night to count the little brown bats catching mosquitoes under street lamps, crawling through the dewey grass with Jeoffry the tabby cat, or sleeping on the linoleum floor, my head resting on the soft side of the family dog.

I believe the ability to feel intimacy with the natural world–not just appreciation–is as important as policy in protecting what sustains us: air, water, open space.

Images I offer students derive from the animal body, from the movement of wind and water.

(Naomi Klein mentions the value of such imaginings in this interview.)

Trailhead lessons put new meaning in the notion of “grounding.”

So when I heard these stories on NPR, I was moved to tears. They include accounts of Laurel Braitman arranging concerts for wolves and Judy Collins describing the first time she heard whale song. Alexandra Horowitz weighs in with common sense.

E.O. Wilson calls for setting aside half the planet as permanently protected area, linked expanses.

This Smithsonian story tells more.

Maybe the answer is to surrender to interconnection/intraconnection. Union? Yoga.

To cultivate both wonder and stillness.

How wonder and stillness come together.

More on staying calm and keeping still.

Be well.

Putting movement into your life

Joy is when another writer puts into words what you’ve not quite been able to grasp. A yoga student loaned me Putting Movement into Your Life by dancer and scholar Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, a nothing-fancy self-published book with piles of gems inside.

Lines are clearly spatial entities, whether actually drawn on paper and perceived or whether imaginatively constituted and followed. When imaginatively brought to life, however that is, when experienced as a linear design or pattern created by movement, they are not purely and solely spatial entities. When we apprehend any moving body–our own or that of another person–as creating linear design and pattern, whether in stirring a cake batter, hammering a nail, kicking a ball, or zigzagging to avoid colliding with someone, we temporize a spatial dimension of movement in the course of imaginatively spatializing the directional line or lines themselves. In other words, being essentially kinetic spatial phenomena, the lines created by moving bodies are inherently temporal in character.

Experience this. Put movement into your life right now.

Sit in a chair, toward the front edge of the bottom. Lift a foot. Gently point the toes. With the foot, write the alphabet in the air, toes leading. Try cursive, capital letters or lower case. Move through both feet.

In so doing, we experience the imaginatively drawn line as a temporal as well as spatial phenomenon, a temporal phenomenon not simply in terms of its duration, but in terms of its pauses, quicknesses, attenuations, and so on. Indeed, lines have an intricate dynamic structure.

Sheets-Johnstone points out the impermanence of movement.

This is why I love teaching yoga, one-on-one and in small groups: How we move, what I say–the very action of my breath and lips in speaking–is unrecorded. We glide through moments in time, tracing imaginary lines, even stealing into imagined spaces in the body and the room and it’s all impermanent.

We are fully present for what is until what is becomes what was and we’re in the is. Union.

This is the magic of live performance. The sublimity of a kiss. This is what I was getting at with my collage postcards. Ephemerality. Letting be and letting go.

Adventure

Ask me

Sheets-Johnstone quotes the poet Antonio Machado as describing us as “wayfarers” and “wanderers.”

…the source of our path is unknown or not remembered and has no goal….What humans do to make up for the impermanence of their movement through life as a whole is draw figuratively on their imaginative consciousness of movement. We humans indeed dynamically recreate lines along which we have travelled, the paths of our lives once followed; and we dynamically create the paths along which we are now moving and might move in the future, the path of the moment and the paths along which life might take us.

In a recent workshop, a student commented, “I wish I were a movement person, but I’m not.” We paused the discussion and moved the palms of the hands with the breath like this.

“We’re all movement people,” I told her afterward. “We’re alive.”

Earth & Eros

I’m pleased to offer this excerpt from the preface to the new book Earth & Eros: A Celebration in Words and Photographs, edited by Lorraine Anderson. I interviewed Lorraine for “Drawing Closer,” an essay on women poets and nature in the third millennium published in Her Circle. Lorraine and I share a curiosity about what it means to experience intimacy with the world through breathing, moving, speaking and listening.

Earth & Eros brings together prose and poetry by nearly seventy authors—including Gary Snyder, Terry Tempest Williams, Pablo Neruda, Diane Ackerman, D. H. Lawrence, and Louise Erdrich—to celebrate the sacred erotic dimension of humans’ relationship to the earth. Foreword by Robert Michael Pyle and photographs by Bruce Hodge.

Check out, as well, Lorraine’s Sisters of the Earth.

E&E_bordered

Eros. The irresistible siren of desire. The red cord of passion. The hunger that cries to be filled, the thirst that must be quenched. The mysterious force that propels every life form, pushing roses to bloom, hummingbirds to migrate, and salmon to swim upriver to spawn. The force of life seeking to fulfill itself, reaching, surging, expanding, unfolding. The life force that connects us to ourselves, to other humans, to all other living beings on the earth, and to the earth as a living being.

Eros encompasses our sensuality and sexuality, yes, but it embraces so much more—the deepest longings of body, heart, and soul, our deepest roots in earth. “Eros is the bond in the ecological communion within which we live. It is not primarily an emotion, a decision, or the result of an act of will. It is the mutuality linking cell to cell, animal to environment, without which we would not be,” writes philosopher Sam Keen in The Passionate Life.

Eros in our world is most often narrowly understood as romantic and sexual love and lust between humans. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the earth is so often treated as an object to be bent to our own uses rather than as an intimate partner to be loved, respected, appreciated, and revered. Perhaps there is a relationship between our limited concept of eros and our narrow valuing of nature solely for the “resources” it provides us with. We have forgotten the intimate, erotic relationship between our bodies and the earth, and the consequences are all around us.

. . .

“Oh, what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was made a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and the setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and equinox! This is what is the matter with us, we are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars,” wrote novelist D. H. Lawrence. Is there a different way of inhabiting our bodies and the earth? Eros, the force of desire, says yes.

Stop and take a deep breath. Breathe the air down into your heart, into your pelvis, into your toes. Feel your body as the earth of you, as a part of the larger body of the earth; feel yourself as a wild creature connected to a wild longing for health, wholeness, communion. Experience your deepest cravings. Know that the well-being of the earth depends on your passionate pursuit of what you most deeply desire in your cells, which is life abundant and overflowing.

Hands & breath (meditation)

This is a simple meditation you can do anywhere, even at the table.

Seated, rest the palms face up on your thighs. Close the eyes. Inhaling, let the fingers expand and fan open gently. Exhaling, let the fingers draw toward the center of the hands, closing. Breath guides movement. Continue for 12.

 

Inspiration. Expiration.

Walking along the C & O Canal towpath in Maryland above Great Falls yesterday, I heard grackles gathering. Bringing my hands to my low back, extending the spine, lifting the chin to look up at the treetops, hundreds of birds could be seen gathering in branches. It feels good to connect soles of the feet with earth, even through tennis shoes. The ground took my weight so I could stretch farther. Rooting and lifting.

There wasn’t much to see, glossy black birds with long tails darting about, autumn light on green leaves edged with brown. On one side, the flat canal water; beyond the patch of forest, swift-flowing Potomac. Stillness and movement.

Bird pause.

A new student is discovering breath. She’s exploring her range of motion in the shoulders. She’s taking the shapes of mountains and trees.
This morning we traced the breath with a simple arm flow. We identified the origin of the motion and investigated how the palms of the hands reference the rotation of the arms.

We imagined birds.

Michael Stone writes in Awake in the World,

Just as we read the sky for signs of weather and read books for helpful insights, the yogi begins in the body, combing through the knots and flows of the body as a way to ground the movements of mind and breath. To give attention to the birds, I also have to be fully in my body. Beginning with the breath, we drop down into the pelvis, flow as we exhale, and then become aware up across the collarbones as we inhale and the roof of the mouth domes up. The collarbones lift and spread horizontally, like the lintel of the throat, and the hollow mouth quiets any clamoring in the nerves.

In day-to-day life the arms so often reach reach reach out and away to hold on or take hold at the mind’s behest. To notice how their movement can unify with breath brings a person back to his or her body’s fullness.

When we watch birds, and other animals, we can learn about coherence. Stanley Plumly says yoga allows us to see with the insight of quiet light.

Birds must breathe very efficiently.

 

Do they, like us, have a sense of returning with each cycle of respiration? Do they feel at home in their bodies?

Stone continues,

Like returning to the same flowerbeds in your backyard, season after season, following the breath is a return to the familiar though always changing Earth. Of course, the ground changes, yet there are enough features for us to recognize something secure. When we breathe down to the end of every exhalation, sensation appears in the pelvic floor, and then a natural pause appears before the inhalation shows up.

The simple process of human breathing is pretty astounding, too. Take a look.

Marvel at your inspiration. And expiration. 

(Mindful) Morning!

Pleased to have “Make It a Mindful Morning” published in today’s

WITHIN OUR MORNINGS, there are moments as expansive as giant soap bubbles we could step into and inhabit. This is mindfulness: that intentional “stepping into” the current of right now, with curiosity, without judgment.

Why bother with mindfulness? After all, by the time the sun comes up there are cats to feed, coffee to brew, news feeds to read and cereal to chew.

Mindfulness, as defined by the American Psychological Association, is moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. Noticing what’s happening in our mind and body, as it’s happening, appears to offer a host of benefits from greater relationship satisfaction to increased focus, strengthened immune system and a more functional memory.

Even better, the cat can eat, the coffee can pour and the cereal can be crunched. Routine activities provide the perfect home base for practicing mindfulness.

Reading the news, on the other hand, will have to wait. But after a few mindfulness moments, when you do turn to headlines, chances are you’ll feel more focused. A mindful morning increases the likelihood of continued mindfulness throughout the day.

How do we measure a moment?

Continue reading here.

Interconnection is love

J. Ruth Gendler took the words right out of my mouth. From Notes on the Need for Beauty.

For years I have experimented with the way qualities move through the body, positive and negative. Fear moving through the body becomes terror in the chest, anxiety in the mind, panic in the skin along the calves. Joy moves up the spine and lights up the whole face from within. Harmony in the bones becomes serenity in the heart, radiance in the forehead. Feel the front in front of the back, feel the back in back of the front. Feel the currents and pulses, crosscurrents and spirals, dances of solidity, resistance and fluidity. Trust the needs and hungers of these strong, vulnerable body beings.

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.

To whom or what, and how, are you interconnected? Love.

Poem: Clare Bonsall

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

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

Endings or Blue’s Last Breath

The whoosh of air
left its old
grey body

And traveled
into the
ether –

I carried that
old Blue cat
home

And knew what
spirit looked
like

And was relieved
to see that
wind exit

To be drawn in
by another
and another

– Clare Bonsall

 

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

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