Relationships form

All teaching, all life, can be boiled down to these three phrases shared at a reading by poet Jane Hirshfield:

Everything changes.

Everything is connected.

Pay attention.

Joseph Cornell’s boxes are small universes.

Noticing requires time and quiet. Preparing for change is a slow and steady process.

This is why I believe in teaching yoga one-on-one and in small groups.

Tradition has it that in ancient times, yogis would attach themselves to great houses, serving as teachers, advisors and, healers….The pupil’s undivided attention was fully reciprocated by the teacher. Focus, attentiveness, kindness with firmness, and many of the interpersonal virtues in yoga’s Ten Commandments, the Yamas and Niyamas, were taught by precept and example in these two-person sessions. The parties got to know each other and relationships naturally formed.

– Loren Fishman, MD, from Yoga and Breast Cancer by Ingrid Kollak, RN, PhD and Isabell Utz-Billing, MD

Among past learning and teaching, occurrences stand out:

  • Having a one-on-one with a yoga teacher early in my studies, 20 years ago.  No one else showed for her class and she gave me full attention. We met in a small carpeted office. She took the time to build my confidence in mountain pose.
  • Having another one-on-one with a yoga teacher whose class also didn’t “fill.” She placed me in savasana for 20 minutes, alone in the room, trusting me to myself.
  • Guiding a high school junior into creating a powerful thesis for her final paper, the white board scrawled with ideas over hours after school ended, in the spacious stillness of a large public school that follows when even the coaches and custodians have packed up for the day.

And now:

  • Sitting beside a yoga student in his or her own home, or mine, as she counts her breaths, tells me what she’s feeling, and finds her way into a balance of effort and ease with each pose.
  • Seeing how a student’s alignment tilts him out of equanimity, showing him, and the delight on his face as he learns.
  • A mother and daughter who sit in a class of two, their sanctioned time together in the week.

Who has taken the time to teach you in your field of study? Thank them, in thought, word or deed.

How did they model for you the art of attention, the significance of change, the links among ideas?

Home practice

When I moved from Sacramento to Washington, D.C. last spring, I wrote about creating space in my studio apartment for a yoga home practice.

Since then, I’ve happily started teaching students in their own spaces. We may set up in the foyer or the living room. Sometimes we have to roll up a rug or push a coffee table out of the way. Often, furniture becomes a prop. My students see that they have on hand what they need to make an asana practice: a sturdy stool stands in for yoga blocks during a forward fold; a rolled towel serves as a bolster for the knees. Last week, during a breath awareness flow, I noticed a student tensing her hands as her arms extended overhead. I grabbed two tomatoes from a basket on the kitchen counter and asked her to hold them in her palms. No more squeezing!

The greatest value of a home practice, whether practicing yoga, meditation or poetry, is focused attention. Working privately with a teacher, of course, provides you with a set of eyes: it can be challenging to see yourself, even in a mirror.

O’Keeffe often practiced her art alone teaching herself skills, trusting her wisdom.

But practice any art alone and you become your own teacher, training yourself to notice and to trust what you notice. I practice alone and with teachers. I love to teach my students privately…and I assign them homework.

On Real Simple my yoga teacher Cyndi Lee offers advice on on how to keep a home practice steady. She points out if you have a pet you won’t likely be practicing alone. I know my dog Tucker will come from wherever he’s resting to join me on the mat for yoga or beside the folded blanket for meditation. Good company.

Meal of a mouse

On a narrow path along the edge of Rock Creek Park, we came upon a small black rat snake ingesting a dead mouse. We covered both animals with a large bowed piece of fallen bark in the hopes that the snake would be protected long enough to finish its meal. I wish I could have lingered to see the snake gorge with mouse; it was difficult to imagine such a small shape could make space enough to contain another.

The image stays in my mind as I move through the day. And I mean, move. Not just practicing asana but pausing to notice breathing. Or picking up the pace to cross the street before the signal’s green hand turns to red.

The image stays in my mind as I observe my students’ bodies. I’ve refrained from mentioning the snake while teaching: though I searched out snake poems (Levertov’s is a favorite) and wracked my brain for meaningful metaphors to sprinkle into instruction (!) what I witnessed has not seemed relevant to my students’ own full hours.

But the experience of seeing the snake and mouse reminds me of why I practice yoga–to pause and see.

When students are ready, I introduce them to pratyahara, a yoga practice commonly translated as “withdrawal of the senses.” We often use crocodile pose to explore this notion of stilling. I have to resort to cliche: I “hold the space for them” to “give them permission”  to “let go” of reaching toward sounds, sights, smells…. If  leaning in is the millennium’s code phrase for conquering the world, think of pratyahara as leaning away.

And why would we want to lean away? Because when we then come across something extraordinary, meaning ordinary and just a little extra so, like a baby snake feeding itself on an unlucky mouse, we can literally lean away from the ticking clock nudging us toward our appointments, and lean down and appreciate life happening, not quite camouflaged against the forest floor.

Photo by Matt Weiser. Near Klingle Road, June 2015.
Snake and mouse, near Klingle Road, June 9, 2015. Photo by Matt Weiser.

We can learn to shift at will from leaning in–what can be considered acting as an agent to affect the course of the world –and leaning away–receiving the world as it splendidly exists without us. It’s a bit like code-switching among languages.

Somatic researcher Peter Levine says that for humans, awareness precedes embodiment. Minute after minute sitting and breathing in the quiet of a room, moving an arm with intention, standing in stillness and noticing, leads to fully being in the body. “The Body is the Shore on the Ocean of Being,” Levine attributes to a Sufi saying.

With enough yoga practice, we realize that the body is a means of engagement with the world, not a barrier to it.  Feeling at home in my body allows me to appreciate people and animals in their bodies.

Yoga has brought me closer to the non-human world. Through gentler observation, I love it more fully.

Empathy begins by stepping imaginatively into another’s situation, human or non-, and to do that we have to first fully inhabit our own situation. Those hours on a yoga sticky mat transfer to a new way of seeing and being with nature.

Cats and dogs are typically more available for observation than snakes are. Next time you see a cat or a dog, notice it. Animals’ bodies tell and hold stories, too.

  • Cue in on shoulders. Are they even? Drawn forward or back?
  • Is the head tipped forward or back or to one side or another?
  • Can you notice the breath moving in the body?
  • Where are the legs in relation to the shoulders?
  • How are the feet contacting the ground, or the sitting bones to the ground?
  • What did you notice about the whole animal?

This practice of observation, along with a personal yoga practice, is one way of coming into union, of remembering that we are all connected by the very act of living, each of us, human and animal, desiring to be healthy, at peace, and safe as we breathe throughout the day.

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.

 

 

 

 

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?

 

 

 

Dear Creature, I See You

Wherever I stay–a tent, a trailer, a bungalow, a borrowed room, a hotel, a townhouse, a loft, a studio apartment–an observation post is essential. Previous posts include a front yard Adirondack chair, a stool on a shallow balcony overlooking a parking lot, a porch swing, a stoop step.

Yesterday marked three weeks in Washington, D.C.; this morning, I found a lookout at my new home. A vital piece to the jigsaw puzzle of new routine.

The apartment building fronts Connecticut Avenue and faces west. Two driveways flanked by slate-paved sidewalks funnel cars and people to the lobby’s glass doors. Centered in the courtyard is a fountain with three spouts. Within the walls of the entry space, cascading water shushes traffic noise. To the right and to the left as you walk toward the 11-story building, four cedar benches are tucked in two alcoves beneath shade-giving dogwood trees. The gardeners are attempting to espalier magnolias along the stone walls without much luck. 

Choosing a right-hand bench, on the south side of the driveway, I observe the world.

Straight-ahead: Residents in skirts and suits clutch briefcases and totes, some on the phone already. Nannies and parents come and go, pause if a tot tosses a stuffed duck from the stroller. Dog walkers hurry poodles and beagles to the park. Housekeepers sort keys. Carpenters carry their lunches in coolers.

Out on the street, more people, in cars and buses, driving garbage trucks and delivery vans. Intrepid bicyclists claiming a lane. All machines with wheels I ignore.

I’m concealed to observe sidewalk pedestrians. 

Writing instructors advise novices to sit in a cafe and people watch, to notice tics and expressions that make their ways into stories’ characters. By imagining a stranger’s life, they also practice empathy.

Certainly taking in the world during hours seated in airports and on buses, subways and trains fleshed out my stories and triggered poems. Make up two characters and put them together in a situation and you’ve stitched a relationship: there’s a story.

Catch a phrase, place it under a bell jar and it might metamorphose into a stanza of verse.

As a writer and an editor, I look for relationships of the parts of the body of a piece of writing to the entire piece. I show a student how tension between a sentence and a line harmonize in a poem. We’ll rearrange an essay’s paragraphs to bring ideas into logical order.

As a yoga teacher, I look for relationships of parts of a body to the whole. Together with a student, we uncover the body’s sense of internal organization. We harmonize movement and breath. We ask, in what ways, physically and emotionally, are we motile? 

Yoga models as seen on YouTube and in magazines resemble cyborgs more than they do real-life teachers and students. Most of us inhabit forms that aren’t particularly symmetrical, pure, grand or refined. They are, in all cases, beautiful-bods that are lopsided, steady, injured, whole, small, tall, resonant, reedy….what have you.

Instead of personalities or plots, from my blind I am seeing the wonder and range of physical life. 

How do two shoulders relate to each other? Where do fingertips fall? Which leg leads a step? Where is the neck in relationship to the entire spine? In which direction lends the gaze? How do the feet support the body, the sitting bones the torso?

I’ve had amazing hairstylists in my life. (When my hair’s a mess, it’s not their fault! I am a wash and brush person.) Looking at me they take in strands’ texture, condition, color, shine and how the mop falls. Their minds spin ways to enhance whatever’s happening on the head that day. Sure they notice a necklace or new sweater, expression, posture and demeanor but they are attuned to hair. Hair is what they can do and what they love to do.

Bodies are the same way for me. Your hairiness or hairlessness, t-shirt or blouse, that zit or wrinkle are irrelevant.

When I see you, I am listening to the body, observing it.

My mind flips through its Rolodex for possibilities of breathing exercises and postures, and meditations to complement them.

To me, dear student, your body is bonny. We find places where it can move. We find space for breath. We invite the mind to rest. By assuming yoga postures, we align the kit and caboodle of your being with this gravitationally ruled planet.

And, strangers, when I seem to be sitting idly on a bench, know that I am working. As a musician attends concerts, a painter museums, a poet readings, I am attending to my craft, familiarizing myself with movement patterns, immersing myself in possibilities, honing intuition.

It’s by paying attention that anything is learned.