Breath and belonging

I like being calm.

Some days, when I’m sipping morning coffee, reading the newspaper without railing at the news, or serenely waiting to be connected with a customer service agent while ads stream scratchily through the phone, I can’t believe it’s me who is breathing so evenly. Am I the same person who used to pitch fits? Slam doors? Who punched (yep) her high school boyfriend on the subway platform?

Am I the same person who was curled in sorrow on the sofa? Sprawled drunk in the hammock too early on a weekday afternoon? Stepped away from, stepped down from, stepped over every difficulty and obstacle instead of stepping through?

Sure. I’m that same person who feels deeply, cares mightily and lives with the genes of addiction. In fact, the more years I acquire the more I recognize the seven-year-old girl who is devoted to animals, sunshine, rain, who is skipping, swinging, cooking, laughing and sitting on the stoop with a friend.

Yoga scholar Richard Rosen teaches that the ancient yogis believed we’re each allotted a number of breaths. Pranayama, the yoga practice of breath control, allowed the yogis to extend their breath. I think of it as adding water to the last of the orange juice in the jug so it covers breakfasts until the next shopping run.

Meditation is the heart of yoga.

The postures, Rosen emphasizes, developed as a means to prepare the body for extended periods of sitting. Why sit?

Why live long? To increase the odds of acquiring knowledge, and wisdom, knowledge’s joyful, loving appendix.

When I picture old-time yogis sitting under trees on antelope skins, buying time by slowing their breaths while accruing awareness of bird song, breeze, their own ragged feelings and tangled thoughts, I recall people I have known who died too soon. They include my 8th-grade student, Carrie, who took her own life in a moment when no one was looking; a friend’s baby, Lindsay, who was shaken into silence in a fit of caregiver’s frustration; my husband’s best friend, Mike, whose last breath was underwater near the boats he’d restored. I think of those who made it to the end, last breaths tied off like a knot in run-out thread–my grandmother who held my hand as hers stilled; my husband’s grandmother, who had held her great-granddaughter shortly before she died; and my stiff old dog, Sasha, who accepted the veterinarian’s kindness with a slow blink of brown eyes followed by a quick release from pain.

When I played guitar as a child, the metronome taught me to keep time. I’d mark out a period to practice, establish the space by placing a cane bottom chair beside the music stand and setting one foot on the dented blue stool, pick up the guitar and begin to play. Tick-tock, the notes from the strings aligned themselves around the measured beat. I wasn’t particularly good. I could synch with the rhythm, but my ear is far from pitch-perfect and I have little recall for tunes. So simple scales made sense to me. The even repetition of finger movements and the predictability of the notes rocked me into emotion. Alone in my little pink-walled room at the back of the house, where no one could hear me but robins and sparrows in the trees along the alley, I lost track of time and place, the action of moving and making transporting me to a sense of belonging.

Trace the stream of the word “belonging” back to its spring and you find the Old English gelang, meaning “at hand, together with.”

Yoga is translated as union, with connotations of yoking or joining with, as in linking breath and movement or attention with movement or self with whatever the other is, a past-time, a friend, a sport, a book, a gesture or god.

Home practice is both the effort of stretching a bit, literally and figuratively, by making a shape with the body, an “asana,” filling it with breath, then releasing that breath to let the next one return. The Sanskrit word asana is related to the English “sitting” or “seat.”  The idea is that in a stable, easeful seat, we feel situated in an essential part of our selves, peaceful and aware.

Try it a little home practice right now

Sit where you are. Come forward on the chair seat so the back body is freed of the chair back. Establish sitting bones with the chair bottom. Let the feet rest solidly on the floor or a stool or a pillow. Imagine drawing the breath up through the feet, as if they have gills, up the legs, around the hips and waist, straight up, up, up through the neck and cresting at the crown of the head and then exhale imagining the breath showering down the outside of the body. Breathe steadily, un-forcefully. Align mind and breath. Express nothing more, nothing less than your being, alive.

The rest of our practice

 

Everything changes. Everything is connected. Pay attention.

Yoga was born, nurtured, and cultivated in India, but it’s been passed along to the West like a baton in a relay race. For all intents and purposes, over the last six decades, we’ve refined the original foundation practice–asana–far beyond the wildest imaginings of the old yogis. But although we are asana adults, the rest of our practice is still in its infancy. So now it’s time to turn our attention to other matters, using the traditional practice as our model but shaping the practice to suit Western needs. – Richard Rosen, from Original Yoga: Rediscovering Traditional Practices of Hatha Yoga

Edmond Eugène Valton, French, 1869, The Scholar, National Gallery of Art

 

Genuine teaching

Rosen’s interview with another great yoga scholar, Georg Feuerstein, is as relevant today as when it took place in 1997.

Feuerstein’s responses apply to most any teaching situation.

THE ROLE OF A YOGA TEACHER

Richard Rosen: How do you understand the role of the yoga teacher in the yoga community and in the
larger society? What are the responsibilities that the teacher has to the people around him or her?

Georg Feuerstein: It’s a huge responsibility, huge. I think if people fully understood that they would be far
more careful in choosing to become a teacher. A teacher is not a guru. A guru has a responsibility
that’s incomprehensible, because he’s not just responsible for this one lifetime. They take on
things that affect their own being. Teachers do that to a small degree but they take on an
obligation for communicating wisdom that’s very old. It should be preserved in it’s full integrity.
This means they have to be continuous learners.

The teacher who has stopped learning is no longer a teacher. It’s impossible to teach without continuing to learn….

There has to be enthusiasm for communicating the genuine teachings, and delight in their growth. If that’s not there, you’re not a teacher either. The whole process has to be one of which we are all moving toward a greater understanding, a greater expression of our inner capacities, and greater delight. If that’s not there, you’re in the wrong business. There has to be a commitment to the tradition, which means you have to keep yourself informed of the tradition. Not just learning in the sense that I now know how to do this asana better, but also a learning in terms of really studying.

Always emphasize study.

I’m a scholar, but study is very much part of the yogic tradition. It’s been in classical yoga since ancient times. How were the teachings communicated? Through study of the original texts. There’s no way to explain anything unless
you study. This has to be continued.

Teachers have to talk with one another. Forget about competition.

What’s the point? If teachers work together not only would their individual practices thrive, but they would also promote the entire movement. The old saying, “Strength in unity.” Right now, it’s a kaleidoscope that doesn’t
hang together. It’s sad to see. In India, even though each ashram has its approach, there was a general sense of we are engaged in something very powerful and profound, and there was a kind of respect. On the whole you could say, “There is this ashram up the road and there’s a great teacher there, if you want to go there, go there. If you don’t belong here, that’s fine, go up the road.” But here is much more, “How many more students can I get?” This is an infringement of
ahimsa. It’s a harmful thing to be that competitive.

As a teacher you also have the responsibility of embodying the things you talk about.
RR: You have responsibility to the other members of the yoga community, not only students, but
other teachers.

GF: 
Everyone. The whole movement. I think right now because the teachers only see their own little acre, they don’t look to the neighbor, they also don’t see the movement as a whole; therefore very few teachers that I know of are concerned about what is happening with the yoga tradition in the Western world, where is it going? The answer is, it’s not going to go anywhere without direction. Where is the direction coming from? Right now it’s unfolding wildly, and
that’s maybe appropriate at this stage, but I think enough people are beginning to ask, where could it go? People are asking, how should we train teachers? There’s too many teachers out there who don’t know what they’re doing, both in the exercises, which is in itself criminal, because you can do damage to people, but also they don’t know the teaching. When I say, have you heard of Patanjali’s sutra, they say, what’s that? Then it means they’re not yoga teachers. So
there has to be preparation for the job, not just a weekend, or a video.

In professional terms, you have to have qualifications, or you’re menace.

Looking at the larger picture, there also has to be a deep love for people, and a deep love for this tradition.

And then things can galvanize in a different way.

If more yoga teachers lived the ideals of the tradition which they avow, they would come together
more, they would share more, and they would create the kind of culture that would be supportive
to the tradition….

Living in this realm, which is a very flawed realm, those who have woken up to a degree have no
option, we have to struggle out, we have to free ourselves from the flawed nature of this world,
and we do it by purifying ourselves, getting clarity in our own being, finding more light, finding
more joy, and then communicating that as best we can to others.

That should be the real task of the yoga teacher, not what you pass on as postures and breath control and all that.

That’s the real communication, because that’s what people want–when you nail them down, sooner or later they
will admit that–they’re suffering, yes, they don’t know why they’re suffering, but we want to be
free of this suffering, and that’s why we’re here. Even these silly postures we do, we’re really looking for something deeper, and I think to give them a chance to come to that insight, is the challenge of the teacher.
Like this vision of everybody’s our mother . . . because we’ve lived so many lives together,
we’ve all been mothers to each other. So if it’s your mother, how can you let your mother suffer,
right?

Your heart goes out, and you say, “Ah, I give these postures, but I wish I could tell you that there is more!”

[laughs]

And wait patiently.

What is “advanced” yoga?

It takes 10 years of steady practice, I’ve read, to become proficient at anything you do.

Think about what you do and enjoy–cooking, painting, gardening, rock climbing, swimming, raising chickens–and you’ll find some truth to the claim. 

In the yoga world, people often ask each other how long they’ve been at it. For some people, the asana (poses) come more easily, for others the meditation, for others the system’s ethical guidelines, such as kindness and generosity, are a natural fit.

More than 10 years ago, Michelle Marlahan started a small neighborhood yoga studio in Sacramento. She was ahead of the yoga craze, and its chain studios, that has since swept the United States. It’s All Yoga emphasizes the personal aspect of the practice, the process of getting to know oneself in order to move through the world with clarity. We call this svadhyaya.

Michelle has taught many people, and trained many yoga teachers (including me), so when I got curious about what it means to be advanced in a yoga practice, I asked her to share her experience and wisdom.

We’re talking about yoga here, but the concept of “advanced” is worth thinking about in whatever you pursue.

Thank you, Michelle!

It’s easy to equate growth, or “advancing,” in your yoga practice to doing fancier, more complicated poses. It’s a somewhat measurable factor – you might feel stronger and more flexible, allowing you to achieve poses that were hard in the beginning. The increasing popularity of yoga on forums like Instagram make it tempting to equate “advanced yoga” with photo of a beautiful woman in bright pants doing an extravagant cirque de solei pose. This can be confusing, intimidating and misleading.

Yoga is a life practice.

Yoga philosophy is an invisible support system, like the tree roots of the mighty oak. Qualities like honesty, self-knowledge and present moment awareness are personal experiences on and off the mat, making them harder to measure. So how can we tell when we are making progress?

Here are a few ways you might be aware of “advancing” in your practice:

1.  You have contentment and steadiness in a simple pose.

It’s tempting to gauge our improvement in practice to our ability to do technically difficult poses. There are many factors that contribute to our access or improvement in a pose:

Some people are put together with more loosely constructed bodies — more spacious joint sockets, more “flexible” muscles; other people are constructed with more fitted joints and less pliable muscles. (Think stereotypical ballerinas vs. football players.)

It matters what we do the other 23 hours of the day – our posture, habits and activities off the mat create patterns that affect our movement on the mat.

If we have prior injuries or physical considerations like a scoliosis, our options for range of movement might be affected.

Even basic needs like sleep and what we consume will affect our body’s ability to adapt and change.

Conversely, maintaining steadiness and breath in any pose – and the humility and patience it takes to find contentment in a simple pose – might be considered a more “advanced” practice than contorting or striving.

It is also worth mentioning that asana, or the poses, are just one of eight limbs or pillars of a yoga practice. There is a lot of emphasis on the physical poses in popularized yoga, but it is only a small portion of the larger practice. To base our advancement on one aspect out of eight is imbalanced.

James McNeill Whistler, Nude Standing with Legs Crossed, 1878, National Gallery of Art

2. You have more freedom and spontaneity in your breath.

Pranayama, or breathing practice, is another one of the eight limbs of Yoga. There are many intricate and powerful breathing techniques used to affect the energy and mind state.

Before you jump into this refined practice, consider this: Most of us have habits and patterns of holding in the body and breath from as far back as childhood. Activities like ballet, gymnastics and even sports can create postural restrictions that affect our breathing. Not to mention emotional factors that can create subconscious tendencies in the breath.

San Francisco Bay Area teacher Richard Rosen recommends spending the first three months (at minimum) of daily yoga practice simply watching the breath in an easy, restful posture, like Constructive Rest.

Through time and gentle attention, we can uncover the ways we inhibit or force the breath and eventually free the natural rhythm of our body’s intelligence.

If we don’t explore and free those layers of habit and holding before exploring breath techniques, we potentially put more limitation or control on top of something that is already constricted.

Additionally, without truly knowing our natural breath, we won’t be able to appreciate or understand the delicate and often powerful effects of a pranayama.

3. Instead of getting easier, the lessons get harder.

The spiritual path is hard. One way you might know your practice is working is the lessons get harder.

We have to continue to grow, and often growth is spurred by challenge.

Related, you might be more aware of your “darker” emotions like anger, jealousy, greed and judgment.

Being a yogini doesn’t mean you will have only kind, benevolent thoughts toward everyone.

You are increasing your awareness of your humanness and that includes the full spectrum of emotion.

Ultimately, yes, through this practice we become more forgiving and compassionate, and perhaps eventually life has a kind of ease or flow. But initially, many of us go through a period of challenge as we see ourselves and the world more honestly which includes knowing and welcoming all parts.

When I posed the question of “advanced” yoga to my studio community, responses included:

An attitude of openness to what is unfolding around me.

Taking a conscious breath before any action.

Using the kitchen countertop to get a leg up while watching water boil.

Advancing in your yoga practice is a personal endeavor and might not have anything to do with a posture. As the saying goes, it’s all yoga.

 

Michelle Marlahan owns and teaches at It’s All Yoga in Sacramento, CA, bringing yoga to the community for more than 10 years. Her new endeavor, The Altar of Nature, focuses the timeless wisdom of the earth to support healthfulness and wholeness through the priniciples of Ayurveda, essential oil therapy and good, old-fashioned listening.

spring shadow

Walking on a late March morning, I could barely keep up with my shadow until I stopped it long enough to snap a photo.

shadow

The poem my mother recited when I was a child, “My Shadow” by Robert Louis Stevenson, popped into my head.

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, 
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
Is a shadow useful? Maybe so, maybe not. I love how Jane Hirshfield says that poetry is valuable precisely because it is not useful.
Richard Rosen talks about what a slow process the study of yoga is. Its benefits may not be apparent for years, if ever. More on that in this video interview with him.
Whenever I’m on a playground swing, I think of Stevenson, too. Swinging is a time to pick up momentum and go quietly fast, like a bird!

Coming to senses

My apartment building has a wonderfully musty book-filled room in the half-basement near the laundry center. Paned windows look out on Rock Creek Park; a freight elevator groans in the hall. Cushy discard couches and chairs with a table to set your feet on. Regular time slips away in this un-clocked space.

Anonymous attempts have been made to organize the books, but the tomes seem to roam on their own volition and comforting chaos reigns. Inventory turns over with the steadiness of cookies in an untrendy neighborhood bakery. You can always find something good.

One Tuesday night, in search of something to read, I took the back steps and narrow hallway to the room and browsed until Stargirl glowed like a lightning bug from a high shelf.

In this scene, Stargirl shares her go-to slice of Arizona desert with new friend, Leo, the story’s narrator.

A minute later she stopped. “We’re here.”

I looked around. The place couldn’t have been more ordinary. The only notable presence was a tall, dilapidated saguaro, a bundle of sticks….The rest was gray scrub and tumbleweed and a few prickly pears. “I thought it might look different,” I said.

“Special? Scenic?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“It’s a different kind of scenery,” she said. “Shoes off.”

We pulled off our shoes.

“Sit.”

We sat, legs crossed.

What happens next is a sweet account of stillness as a way of engaging with life, and love.

“So,” I said, “when does the enchantment start?”

We were sitting side by side, facing the mountains.

“It started when the earth was born.” Her eyes were closed. Her face was golden in the setting sun. “It never stops. It is, always. It’s just here.”

“So what do we do?”

She smiled. “That’s the secret.” Her cupped hands rested in her lap. “We do nothing. Or as close to nothing as we can.” Her face turned slowly to me, though her eyes remained closed. “Have you ever done nothing?”

I laughed. “My mother thinks I do it all the time.”

“Don’t tell her I said so, but your mother is wrong.” She turned her back to the sun. “It’s really hard to do nothing totally. Even just sitting here, like this, our bodies are churning, our minds are chattering. There’s a whole commotion going on inside us.”

“That’s bad?” I said.

“It’s bad if we want to know what’s going on outside ourselves.”

“Don’t we have eyes and ears for that?”

Leo and Stargirl are practicing mindfulness, merely regarding the landscape, watching, receiving, stepping aside from expectations and anticipations, from control.

She nodded. “They’re okay most of the time. But sometimes they just get in the way. The earth is speaking to us, but we can’t hear it because of all the racket our senses are making. Sometimes we need to erase them, erase our senses. Then–maybe–the earth will touch us. The universe will speak. The stars will whisper.”

The sun was glowing orange now, clipping the mountains’ purple crests.

In yoga, we practice pratyahara, becoming aware of sensory stimulation in order to avoid escaping into overstimulation. Judith Lasater describes pratyahara as “a tool to improve daily life. In these moments I begin to understand the difference between withdrawing and escaping….”  I describe it as “leaning away.”

Leo’s experiences in the desert with his friend mirrors the haven of silence some find in pratyahara.

…I could not seem to leave myself, and the cosmos did not visit me. I could not stop wondering what time it was.

But something did happen. A small thing. I was aware of stepping over a line, of taking one step into territory new to me. It was a territory of peace, of silence. I had never experienced such utter silence before, such stillness. The commotion within me went on, but at a lower volume, as if someone had turned down my dial.

The first stanza of Patanjali’s 2,000 year old guidebook begins “now.”

Atha yoga anushasanam
Now, the teachings of yoga.
—Yoga Sutra 1.1

The simple word reminds that there’s no time like the present. If not now, when? Vow now to, like Leo, turn down your own dial in the days ahead, once in awhile. Richard Rosen suggests,

Sit with your spine straight, close your eyes, and slow your breathing. With each exhalation, say the word “now” to yourself, drawing out the “w.” Feel how the present moment becomes suspended even as time passes and transforms into another moment of now.

Well-come!

Yoga’s relevance

When I worked as a poetry teacher in a maximum security prison, one of the inmates pointedly asked me, “What’s the responsibility of a poet?”

While mulling a response over the next few months, I admitted to myself that as compelled as one feels to write poems, no one is obligated to read them. In an increasingly time-pressed world, it is a bit of an imposition to expect them to.

Jane Hirshfield has said that poetry is not practical. This is true.

A man approached me one night after a poetry reading and said my poems were nice enough, but I should acquire a real skill, like being auto mechanic. I’d been a school teacher so I knew about practical jobs: teaching children to add and subtract and to read and write is very practical. So, though it stung, I saw his point.

As a former teaching artist, traveling to bring poetry to students of all ages, I can also gin up a convincing argument on the value of poetry. Through reading, writing and speaking poems, one learns about rhythm and rhetoric, language and longing, sound and self.

These days, though, I teach yoga and meditation. I’m lately asking a version of the inmate’s question,

What’s the point of yoga in 21st-century America?

In Original Yoga: Rediscovering Traditional Practices of Hatha Yoga, Richard Rosen clarifies the question without providing an answer.

Yoga was born, nurtured, and cultivated in India, but it’s been passed along to the West like a baton in a relay race. For all intents and purposes, over the last six decades, we’ve refined the original foundation practice–asana–far beyond the wildest imaginings of the old yogis. But although we are asana adults, the rest of our practice is still in its infancy. So now it’s time to turn our attention to other matters, using the traditional practice as our model but shaping the practice to suit Western needs.

After pondering all this for some time, I think I have an answer.

It’s yoga as a return to a process-oriented approach to life. A right view that acknowledges that the fact of change and the truth of interconnection mean that the only end game is the one we investigate at the conclusion of a yoga class — death — in corpse pose, savasana.

In a U.S.-centric version of this illustration, the asana leaf would be enormous.

Our yoga teachers come primarily from performance backgrounds — athletes, gymnasts and dancers — who gravitate to yoga as full-time employment or part-time hobby. The emphasis in their teaching subsequently falls on “peak poses” as well as long inversions, vigorous flows, arm balances and “deep” anything: forward bend, backbend, twists.

Nuance is lost.

So much energy goes into production of a giant asana leaf that the flower of American yoga can’t bloom.

I’ve seen yoga teachers take and post selfies while taking and teaching classes and during meditation. Performance and presentation in the form of picture or a post tips a person into the future, away from self-study, concentration, steadying of the mind.

Yoga’s physical component of asana is to prepare the body for sitting on the ground in sustained meditation, I have heard. In the Zen tradition that I practice, fidgeting is frowned upon. We sit. Still. Crisp posture and physical strength support this.

Karen Armstrong writes in Buddha:

Yoga can be described as the systematic dismantling of the egotism which distorts our view of the world and impedes our spiritual progress….Those who practice yoga in America and Europe do not always have that objective. They often use the disciplines of yoga to improve their health….Certainly, the yogic exercises can enhance our control and induce a serenity if properly practiced, but the original yogins did not embark on this path in order to feel better and to live a more normal life. They wanted to abolish normality and wipe out their mundane selves.

Scrap the power yoga, the peak poses, the pressure to do this or that.

Move gently and notice what you feel. Build strength through attention to alignment, detail, fluid movement and longer holds. Practice right effort, bringing enthusiasm, maybe joy.

Taking action without expectation of result: This is what yoga contributes to modern America.

Yoga offers a model for the trinity of mind, body and breath. Mind, body, breath — three sturdy legs for the seat of the stool of a contented life.

Says Patanjali’s 19th sutra as translated by T.K.V. Desikachar in The Heart of Yoga:

There will be some who are born into a state of Yoga. They need not practice or discipline themselves.

Does that sound like you? It’s not me either.

In our vernacular, “discipline” is loaded, no matter how much we remind ourselves the word derives from disciple, related to knowledge. Most of us modern Americans — especially those of us with the freedom (time, money, health) to practice yoga — benefit from discipline. This might be the discipline to refrain from eating a second slice of carrot cake or to bite the tongue against gossip.

This is yoga as a structured system, one way to think about being in the world.  That does not mean co-opting religious underpinnings from the earliest yogis millennia ago, but considering the notion of integration as an ongoing coming into wholeness.

A process is a progression. “Progress” derives from the Latin for walking forward.

Patanjali’s second sutra reads,

Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.

Sustain. Direct. Focus.  Yoga helps us with that. And helps us prepare for other forms of concentration, mindfulness and meditation.

Says computer coder Jonathan Harris in the Washington Post’How the Internet’s most earnest evangelist became its fiercest critic:

We’re losing agency over our own minds while big companies make money….It’s not all bad, but there are different ways of seeing,

He concludes,

We have become slaves to devices that addict us. But everyone is the custodian of his own mind. We all have the potential to be the steward of our own consciousness.

Simply discovering one’s own sense of internal organization through aligned posture shifts one’s perspective on the world. Using the body as a personal 24/7 laboratory of inquiry, a yoga student embodies change and interconnection; his or her relationship to the body changes and the parts of the body change in relationship. Morphing.

The yoga student who practices meditation and identifies some sort of ethical guidelines, with the resources of Patanjali, Buddha or another teacher, transforms intellectually and emotionally, too. Compassion unfolds, for oneself and others. Interest in the world develops. Curiosity leads to more curiosity. And ultimately to contentment as one learns, as Rilke says, to love questions.

Thinking about garbage, Energy Department science and technology policy fellow Darshan Karwat reduced his waste stream to a trickle one year. In writing about the project in the Washington Post, he says,

The hardest part was figuring out the best way to talk about what I was doing. It is important to speak to people in a language they understand — a language that respects where they come from, their motivations, their upbringings…..Also, big issues such as trash and recycling are intimately tied to other big issues such as economic growth, globalization and climate change. So, as I wrote about the experiment on my blog, what began as a discussion of trash and consumption quickly became a discussion of governance, economy, peace and pillage of the Earth, poverty, the limits of human knowledge, complexity and simplicity.

Karwat says the overarching issue is how to live more gently on Earth. How can we practice ahimsa, non-injury, that little leaflet of self-restraint on the flower of wholehearted living?

Karwat suggests,

We need to talk more about how collective change is possible by experimentation in individual lives.

By broadening beyond performance, yoga can give us know-how in being with life. I tell my students that I do the work I do — teaching yoga — so they can do the work they do — lawyers, doctors, mechanics, teachers, lobbyists, drivers, CEOs, journalists, parent, painter, or what have you.

The Latin origin of the word “perfect” means completed.

There’s no perfect in yoga, no gold medal, no checklist of poses to tick.

After years and years of meditation practice, off and on, mostly on, I sat on the cushion in the zendo recently and discovered that for a moment I’d had no thoughts. I’d been walking in meditation, then sat down, and briefly felt amazed to be in my body as I simultaneously recognized I was an “I.” Sounds weird? It was a little, but I’d studied enough to know what was going on. And it was but a moment.

In meditation instructions in The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, scholar-yogi Sayadaw U Silananda writes:

Do not have any expectations at this time of practice, do not expect to experience anything strange or to see visions or whatever. Expectation is a mild form of greed or attachment that is a hindrance to concentration and has to be eliminated.

That samadhi, the bliss gracing the flower-top of the diagram? It’s unlikely for most of us living as ordinary householders.

But that ongoing unfolding of leaves and petals? Oh, yeah! That’s available.

In grade school, I learned squash, climbing beans, and corn were the three sisters of traditional intercropping agriculture. The mind, breath and body are the intercrops of yoga. They’re cultivated by, among other means, ongoing study, investigation, observation, being helped and helping.

Yoga in 21st-century America can offer a practical approach to healthy interdependence, to being in process with other people and the environment.

The language is cumbersome, the practice is not.

Try it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Insight. Aura. Story. Breath.

An epiphany in a short story needn’t be a sudden flash of insight. It can be more like an aura, Joy Williams told 20 of us yesterday afternoon during a reading from The Visiting Privilege at Politics & Prose. And in her stories, awareness does dawn slowly, almost imperceptibly.

A reader, experiencing the character’s thoughts and events in a time and space removed from her own, is both onlooker and participant, looking at and responding to the writer’s created world.

Aura, a lovely little word that made its way to Middle English from Greek through Latin, originally denoted a gentle breeze, or breath. The aura of a story is ever-present as breath.

When we pay attention, breath effervesces a quality beyond mere mechanical process. When we turn our attention elsewhere, it goes on without us anyway.  We experience this in the practice of breath awareness: we become both observed and observer, then neither. This is the ordinary/extraordinary process of the respiring rhythm, a body’s most basic measurement of time.

A story, like a life, can pack a lot in in a short time, especially if it’s honest and true. “What a story is, is devious,” Williams describes in the Paris Review.

It pretends transparency, forthrightness. It engages with ordinary people, ordinary matters, recognizable stuff. But this is all a masquerade. What good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensibility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes—which is Wallace Stevens, I think. As a form, the short story is hardly divine, though all excellent art has its mystery, its spiritual rhythm. I think one should be able to do a lot in less than twenty pages.

Her stories are organic, she said at P&P. She does not know the ending before she gets there.

Like M.C Richards in her poem, Behold, Now here like artists in our search/we make a vessel for the spirit’s birth, the writer pursues the waft or glimpse or echo of something, and readies a space for it.

Williams,

I do believe there is, in fact, a mystery to the whole enterprise that one dares to investigate at peril. The story knows itself better than the writer does at some point, knows what’s being said before the writer figures out how to say it. There’s a word in German, Sehnsucht. No English equivalent, which is often the case. It means the longing for something that cannot be expressed, or inconsolable longing. There’s a word in Welsh, hwyl, for which we also have no match. Again, it is longing, a longing of the spirit. I just think many of my figures seek something that cannot be found.

(Sometimes, what was sought is not found and something else is. A character’s voice arrives like an invitation and leaves as suddenly.)

There were few questions for Williams yesterday. The feeling in the audience was there isn’t much to say about work and life, and certainly not the writer’s working life.

There’s observation and there’s practice.

Each of us figures out what we can do and we do it, writing a story or reading one. Teaching or learning. When we do what we’re called to do, that’s enough. We slip into moments of is-ness, of what is nebulously referred to as “the true self.”

Cumulus clouds over a yellow prairie. A good place to find one’s true self? Or read a book? Or make a yoga pose? Or take a breath? Yes.

Williams says,

There’s a story about Jung. He had a dream that puzzled him, but when he tried to go back to sleep a voice said, “You must understand the dream, and must do so at once!” When he still couldn’t comprehend its meaning, the same voice said, “If you do not understand the dream, you must shoot yourself!” Rather violently stated, certainly, but this is how Jung recollected it. He did not resort to the loaded handgun he kept in a drawer of his bedside table—and it is somewhat of a shock to think of Jung armed—but he deciphered the dream to the voice within’s satisfaction, discovering the divine irrationality of the unconscious and his life’s work in the process. The message is work, seek, understand, or you will immolate the true self. The false self doesn’t care. It feels it works quite hard enough just getting us through the day.

Practice without expectation of result. Right now. In this way, wisdom and knowledge align.

Sutra 1.1, the first of Patanjali’s yoga aphorisms, Atha yoga anushasanam, is translated as “Now, the teachings of yoga.” The idea is to accept and pursue understanding in the ever-present.

In the fluidity of time we find stories, we find ourselves. Shunryu Suzuki says,

Time constantly goes from past to present and from present to future. This is true, but it is also true that time goes from future to present and from present to past.

Is it any wonder, then, that insight arrives like breath, steadily and subtly, as necessary and as natural as air?

 

 

 

Even in the urban

Reading an interview with Naomi Klein in Tricycle, I was reminded of this quote from Richard Rosen in his book Original Yoga.

Rosen writes,

Again we see the close relationship between asana and the natural world. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine that the world itself is ensouled and practicing yoga; that it, too, is searching for its authentic self; and that humans are playing along, matching the world’s asanas.

Klein had said,

Part of what fuels manic consumption is the desire to fill gaps in our lives that emerge because of severed connections of various kinds—with community, with one another, and also with the natural world.

We tend to think about connections to nature as something you have to get out of the city in order to build. We’ll say, let’s take urban kids to the wilderness. I think doing that is really valuable, and I believe everybody should be able to experience that. But I also think that we have to be able to engage with the fact that we are still profoundly dependent on nature even when we are in urban environments.

She mentions,

I had a yoga teacher for years who was really good at getting large groups of people at the YMCA to think about the earth beneath the concrete, to connect with the fact that animals all over our world were breathing the same air as us. These practices are critical for us to realize that especially in our protected, air-conditioned bubbles, we are dependent on the natural systems that are being destabilized by climate change.

Little city birds are to be treasured.

A challenge for me in moving to D.C. from Sacramento has been adapting to the “air-conditioned bubble” of the apartment house that is now my home. In my unit, I open the windows. They face north, toward an abandoned and re-wilded section of Klingle Road in Rock Creek Park. The gravel-topped roof of the parking garage keeps the treetops out of reach. I hear birds. Occasionally a sparrow, cardinal, mourning dove or white-breasted nuthatch lands to rest.

In other posts, I’ve mentioned the treasure of the garden conservancy Tregaron–amazingly and generously maintained for the public by a private trust–, and Rock Creek Park where one sees white-tailed deer and the stylish-looking black squirrels. Thanks in part to my grandmother, Kay Mergen, a Nevada transplant who had a large hand in raising my brother and me in D.C. in the 70s and 80s, I know to seek the non-human, that wilder things share the city.

Monday night, I left for an evening walk rattled by unexpected news and feeling out of sorts. The sun was setting. I stayed outside in Tregaron through dusk and into darkness, watching the little brown bats darting through the blue-purple sky. Who can watch a bat and not be transformed?

Little brown bats are little. We can hold them in a hand. How do we gently hold the non-human world in our Homo sapiens hands?

A few weeks ago, sitting by the frog pond as evening arrived, Matt, Tucker and I were startled by the POP POP POP POP of what we thought was a tree branch cracking. Before us, about 150 yards away, an entire oak tree smashed to the ground. When we investigated, we saw the tree had been over 100 feet tall. Fresh-wood smell enveloped us.

This morning, one of my students practiced her yoga lesson mostly supine. She’s recovering from a toe injury and an infection. We began in mountain pose, her feet against the wall. Then she entered tree pose lying on her back. As I listened to her breathe, I remembered the Rosen quote, and the interview with Klein.

The world is practicing yoga. When we choose to devote a little time to asana practice, meditating, reflecting on our actions and noticing our breath, we join with it.

Life shared and shared again

One of the great joys of being a yoga teacher is attending other teachers’ classes. As I moved through a class led by Sally Craig at St. Alban’s Church this morning, it struck me how like gardening the art of teaching yoga is.

During eight years in my Sacramento house, I cultivated front, back and side yards. Every plant had a story–some purchased at Target, others at Capital Nursery, Talini’s or Green Acres. Favorites started as slips, seeds or cuttings from friends’ gardens.

Transferred to my hands, transplanted to my aesthetic, they took on life of their own.

Just as plants shared and purchased revamped my land, other teachers’ learnings are involved in my own, contributing novel wording or a new way to enter a familiar pose, an unusual approach to a stretch or a tidbit of wisdom.

Head-to-knee pose, janu sirasana, can be effective and satisfying.  Last week, in a class at my local library, the teacher had us sweep our arms into the pose in a way I’d never tried; today Sally had us use a strap in a way that I’d not considered. Richard Rosen writes about extending through the bent knee, as well as the more obvious extended leg. There are many subtleties to the pose; these are but a few.

Each new bit of information is grafted to my understanding of the pose. The garden of poses grows in head and heart. Yoga becomes an expression of life shared and shared again.