Between letters & sounds

Gravity is a force of belonging that every living thing on earth shares. There’s a pull to the center. We feel this when we stand in mountain pose, arranging the physical and energetic sense of ourselves around the body’s plumb line.

It’s a rebar of radiance at the center of each existence.

We feel this in corpse pose as we release the back body into the support of the ground, the front body softening to the sky.

I’ve held on to a postcard, a tinted vintage photograph, showing an American Indian burial, a corpse face up on an elevated platform exposed to the sky. The credit reads: “From the studio of Charlotte M. Pinkerton, Chicago, ILL.” Hanging from the platform is a round, feathered dream catcher and what looks to be a scabbard holding a rifle or sword.

Happy kid in the backyard!

From a young age, I wondered about death and burial customs. I guess I was a weird kid. In my defense, my dad was a professor of material culture (stuff) and his best friend at the university was an archaeologist (dead stuff). They took students, and sometimes my brother and me, on trips to Meso-American sites. My dad also taught film studies and, being four years younger than my brother, I saw campy zombie films at a tender age, in grungy downtown theaters and while waiting out the hours in the back of a summer school classroom full of undergrads.

My mom’s side of the family were “jack” Mormons, meaning they’d flapped the tarp of history to shake off religion.

But the dust of tradition blew back, anyhow, and stuck to them.

I canned produce with my grandmother during hot Nevada summers and was tasked with ironing and setting the table.

Mormons believe that, in heaven, everyone reunites with their loved ones, and everyone is fully grown. That didn’t sit well with my grandmother, who quarreled with her sisters and cousins, left her husband, and felt tremendous guilt over the death of her young son. She was scared right up until the end, and died alone in an assisted living facility, unable to outrun the ghouls of fear, shame and regret.

My other grandmother decided early on that she wanted her ashes scattered at a desert lake she loved, no marker. This appeals to me, too. I’ve heard that Vikings set the deceased on a raft, set fire to it, and pushed it out to sea. It seemed to me – like hair clipped at the salon and swept into a dust bin to be tossed away, or fingernails clipped and deposited in the garbage, or baby teeth that tumble from gums to be set under pillows, removed and replaced with a shiny quarter – that the rest of the corporeal body would just go away, too.

In my childhood neighborhood an abandoned hospital that had once occupied a whole city block became rubble, overrun with weeds. We played there, of course. It was known to the kids as Dirt Hill.

Any kid with imagination wondered about the people who might have died there.

We ourselves buried dead rats there in the somber ritualistic play of childhood before the internet.

The rented brick house on D.C.’s Capitol Hill where I grew up dated back to the 19th century. Digging holes for flower seeds, I unearthed china dolls and bits of metal. During summers at my great aunt’s Utah ranch, we found arrowheads and grinding stones.

Clearly, land continues and, in my mind, those who walk it collapse, dissolve, disintegrate, are picked apart in burial pyres, burned to ash and absorbed by land and water. Or eaten by sharks as in the movie “Jaws,” which I saw as a little kid.

In the first few weeks after moving back to D.C. in 2015, after decades in California, I traveled back to Capitol Hill to a simple park of sidewalk and lawn that had been the weedy Dirt Hill lot. The neighborhood’s changed.

In the more formal city park across the street – where I once sold woven pot holders with my friend Jane (who died in college when struck by a car while riding her bicycle), where I once ran as fast as I could with my good white dog by my side (who also died long since) – there was only one person, a weary-looking man who gathered his belongings when he saw me and moved on.

If years of writing and teaching and meditating have taught me anything, it is that life’s joy is found at the fulcrum of seeming opposites as well as contrasts and conflicts.

We contrive oppositions in order to define. But they are still merely arrangements of a mental board game. The seesaw of past and future, for example, is easier to see, and to feel, after all, memories and hopes dangle at each end, but that still point, the present, is peace.

The old St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in D.C.

On an earlier visit to D.C., before moving back, I accompanied my mom to a service at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, in the city’s southwest quadrant. The church itself was to be razed to make way for condos. We attended on the last day of a long-running homeless breakfast service, and the second-to-last church service. The rector, Martha, conducted a warm, meaningful service that emphasized the need to listen to others’ stories. Before the current building was erected, the parishioners had met at Hogate’s Restaurant. This time, while a new, smaller building was being constructed adjacent to the condos, the community would meet in the common room of an apartment complex and at a neighboring church.

The parish seemed part of this cycle of flowing in and out of the community, and the people seemed untroubled by the change.

Maybe they are established in the spirit of breath, aligned with the rhythms of their neighborhood and their beliefs, able to express the faith that makes a nest in joy. 

I’ve heard it said that the whole world is doing yoga all the time; the yogis are just naming it. If every movement, every word, is a prayer then we can take it with us.

The second time my mom got cancer and it looked grim, I was baptized in the narthex of St. Augustine’s at her request. The community did not know me, but they knew her. The priest welcomed me and talked me through my beliefs, much as the Episcopal priest who had married Matt and me a few years earlier had done. Both priests (gone now) were good guys with senses of humor and a real acceptance of human foibles.

At this church that had welcomed me, as I read and sang the prayers, the links to Buddhism and yoga struck me.

It’s as if we are all bees being nourished by flowers, some the same and some different, and doing our bee waggle to show others where we found the nectar, then going back to the hive to make something of it. 

After this final church service at St. Augustine’s, the rector conducted a closing of the community garden before it would be wiped smooth by a backhoe.

We never know, when we start something, where it will end up.

The only way I have found to make or do anything with a pure heart is to do my best and then surrender.

Like Mary Oliver suggests, “Maybe just looking and listening is the real work. Maybe the world without us is the real poem.”

Maybe spirit, embodied as breath, is the spaces between letters and sounds.

Maybe spirit lives at the bottom of each exhalation, the moment when the swimmer rises for a breath.

Maybe love is just to surrender to our own and others’ stories. Because even our stories aren’t our own. They are just fingers pointing to the moon.

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.

Energy is us

One day, many years ago, while an undergraduate at UC-Berkeley I was walking up Dwight Street from the student co-op in the direction of People’s Park. Maybe I was lost in a daydream, maybe I was thinking about assignments due.

All at once, I stepped into the surprise conjecture that everything in the universe is energy that recombines.

I was an English major who had taken a smattering of classes in South Asian Studies, animal behavior and geography. I knew and know little of physics or philosophy. But I had hiked and camped throughout Northern California and, before that, in my extended home territory of the mid-Atlantic and Appalachia. I’d paid attention to birds and trees, their calls and habits, their leaves and bark.

My grandmothers, who loved the Nevada deserts they called home, drilled in me the notion of the fine web of interconnectivity among all living things.

What I recall most vividly 30 years after the Dwight Street walk, is the sense of understanding developing in synch with my physical progression through space. I could see a tree, and see when it dies and decomposes that everything it was becomes something else. From the soil where the tree moldered, new life arises.

Could it be the same for people? I do not subscribe to the idea of past life experiences or reincarnation as sequential. What I could wrap my mind around was at a human life’s end, the energy that made that person diffuses, rehoming in another body at another place in time.

It may sound far out. I guess it is. I admit to sampling in those days the hallucinogenic drugs unrolled like a red carpet for curious natures like mine at the co-op housing where I set my hat.

In those days, and since, I’ve been driven by facts gathered myself or by others from primary sources and by experiences of a more organic and less intrusive nature.

Recently, I was reminded of that Berkeley morning when reading these stanzas from Yanjnvalkya, an Indian poet of the Upanishadic period, translated by yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein in The Yoga Tradition. It starts,

As a tree, or lord of the forest,

just so, truly, is man…:

his hairs are leaves,

his skin the outer bark.

Verily, from his skin flows blood,

as sap from the bark.

Therefore, when the skin is torn,

blood issues from him,

as does sap from a wounded tree.

His flesh is the inner bark,

his tendons the inner layer, which is tough.

Beneath are the bones, as is the wood.

The marrow is comparable to the pith….

Trees, like people, will die and decompose.

Apparently, by the time most of us notice a tree dying, it has been suffering for awhile. (Sometimes this is true of people, too.) A forest researcher in a news story on climate change explained how a tree has “a kind of heart attack” when dry ground leads to air bubbles forming in the tiny tubes that carry water through the tree.

Human beings have so much power, in the form of information and agency. This scientist’s analogy of the trees’ circulatory systems stopping up like the arteries of a heart serves as a reminder to have more heart, more love in the form of tender attention, for the landscape we inhabit and the landscapes of our bodies.

The gravitational field that holds together the human family is stories.

We yoga students, in group classes and solitary home practice, are bound by the historical landscape of tradition, its many participants through space and time. Even when practicing alone, we’re not alone.

Savasana is such a beautiful word that in the yoga studio we rarely offer the translation “corpse pose.” The posture is said to “reset” the nervous system as it moves into a parasympathetic state. The mind remains alert as the body lets go. In a class’s final minutes, I observe students packed tight in the room, drawn from multifarious places, supine like snow angels stopped mid-sweep, and think of this and that, of standing trees and tumbled ones, of the stories each life cradles. Every body as precious as the figures showcased in a hallowed museum.

Many mammals spend their lives belly down to the ground and die on their sides. We humans abandoned all fours to point faces forward and crowns to the sky.

We think the sky is above us but it’s all around us. Moving forward on an ordinary walk, we’re not much different from a river’s fish. 

Then we stretch out to rest, sleep, make love and die, drawing closer to the earth and farther from the ceiling of sky. Corpse pose recalls that we are this and that: corpus,  the hushed physical body, and our collected desires and experiences that walk us along time’s line. Savasana is a semi-final relaxation for the Final one. Maybe this is why corpse pose, like a 7-Up soda, is the pause that refreshes. We rise from savasana slowly and gently to sit up and face our world, and are glad of it. Asana as practice for the rest of life.

A boy I tutored years ago refused to read the last page of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. “I don’t want it to end,” he said. But we don’t know when we end whether it will really all be over. We read stories. We recite poems. We get up from the floor where we’ve practiced. All this is home practice, practice in finding a home in the body, the dignity of being alive.

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.

Why yoga?

Each day I ask myself, “Why yoga?” Do I want to spend hours in practice, teaching and study?

The answer remains “yes.” Because yoga anchors me in a stable physical and emotional home as I wander through a peripatetic life.

From my first class at a YMCA nearly 25 years ago, yoga asana has helped me feel more at ease, more at home, in my six-foot-one body. Meditation reconciles a streak of independence with a foundation of affection for community, a pattern of iconoclasm, restlessness and rebelliousness with a respect for pattern, ritual and service.

As I assimilate puzzle pieces of myself – pieces labeled history, personality, experience, desire – I sample integration.

Yoga, with its postures of moving meditations, its honoring of the breath, sutures various quilt blocks of knowledge into the blanket of values and beliefs that warms me now.

On my bed is a real quilt, stitched by my grandmother and her sisters. She told me the story behind each piece of cloth, the dresses or shirts they came from, who wore them. The colors are pinks and peaches interspersed with light purples, white and black. The quilt reminds me of the net that’s said to hang over the palace of the Hindu god Indra. At each intersection is a multifaceted jewel; each jewel is reflected in all of the other jewels. I am a patchwork of places reflecting a patchwork of places, woven into a whole by breath and movement.

The wet climate of West Virginia, where I now live, and nearby D.C. feel familiar to my cells, having been raised in the city and vacationed in the mountains. When the wind rises, I’m reminded of my time living near the California coast, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa. I love dry places, too: Nevada, my parents’ home state, and temporary abodes near Joshua Tree and at Lake Tahoe.  Daydreaming places me on the Pacific coast, at Point Reyes, where I ate oysters tasting of the sea and ran barefoot on the beach with my dogs.

“You’re from everywhere,” says my husband, Matt. I make a home wherever I go, staking out a rectangle of earth with a rubber mat.

When I was a little girl, my stuffed animals were extended family. Much as it puzzled my older brother, I tended fleece and fuzz friends like regular pets: feeding them, putting them to bed, telling them stories and singing songs. I kept lists of their names, their likes and dislikes, and made a schedule to ensure each got an equal share of my attention.

And in the weird logic of childhood, I also used them as islands. Scattered across the hardwood floor of the den where my dad worked on his university lectures and where the family gathered at evening to read, I’d hop from one toy to another, pretending the floor was water aswim with sharks. It disturbs me now to think I was smooshing my stuffed dog and cat, the koala, polar bear and more when I stepped on their islands of safety. But that’s it. The animals, step-by-step, provided an archipelago of safety.

Each a home base.

“So often you have to run away from home and visit other homes first before you can clearly see your own,” writes Sandra Cisneros in her memoir.

Drugs, drinking, a raw diet, a no-food diet (yes, I tried that, too), and every emotion that came with them, were other homes I tried.

The thing about visiting other places is that the process provides practice in establishing and orienting oneself, aligning with the place’s rhythms, and expressing what arises.

The word “seek” comes from Latin, “to perceive by scent.” I sometimes think, like a canine, I’ve moved from place to place by the scent of intuition. And, like an antsy dog you see through the train window when passing behind houses and weedy lots of an unfamiliar town, I was content to be free, perennially delivering myself from jobs, leases and mortgages, yet not quite happy.  Sure, I was cheerful. I’ve had reason to be. Strangers help me and I have good friends and I like to laugh.

But it took staying put on the yoga mat and the meditation cushion to bring me to a place of joy. They provide practice in steadiness of focus, breathing through odd and sometimes unsettling sensations, tipping over into inversions and rocking in and out of equilibrium in balance poses, building strength and reducing discomfort.

“Safety is joy.” This is the motto spotted on a dump truck during a walking meditation. When I read that motto, I realized that safety does come first like the construction site slogans say.

From safety arises joy.

“There’s no distinction between thinking and feeling,” Dairyu Michael Wenger Roshi said at a day-long Zen retreat in Maryland. A sense of well-being, safety, allows head and heart to align. This is yoga.

Along with well-being, joy encompasses gratitude and peace. Walking through the cemetery by my house, I’ve learned to sidestep the poison ivy growing among other vines. At night, when I see solar candles glowing at headstones, I’m touched by the tenderness of the grave tenders. Having death nearby reminds me to cherish breath and the love that enters and exits with it.

“O God,” cried the mystic Julian of Norwich, “you dwell at the heart of each human being, each person an entire city of complexity and beauty. Show me the grace of my own architecture and that of others.”

Like a tortoise, I carry my home with me, the body housing the heart. I drink the water in a new place, turn my face to the sun, lay on the ground and stand in the rain.

As poet Mary Oliver says, “looking and listening is the real work.”

Yoga holds space and time for the body and its senses. Feeling alive in the moment is joy, another way of saying coming home to the cottage of the self.

Readying for departure

In the end, you don’t have much time left, and who knows if it isn’t better to live like this, stripped of possessions, perpetually ready for departure.

– Luis Cernuda, translated by Stephen Kessler

As I sort through collages, letters, poems, essays and journals pasted, written and kept through the years, one theme recurs like spring robin’s song: Adventure is arrival.

As much as I cherish Harpers Ferry, close-by family and new friends and old, the open road calls me.

In the weeks ahead, I’m paring down to the minimum and setting out in a small trailer towed by a small truck, accompanied by my husband and dog. Destination: desert, a landscape that demands simplicity and kindles joy.

Whether on childhood summer trips to visit family in Nevada, or when I’ve lived in the desert as an adult, the tacit silence of such rugged fragile terrain unifies body, spirit and mind, concretizing yoga as I understand it abstractly.

The more I practice yoga, the more I find being outside is inside and vice versa. Home is the body.

If you’d like to stay in touch, just for fun or to bring me to your studio or community to teach, hop on over to Facebook (my personal page or Simple, Joyful Yoga) or send an email alexamergen@gmail.com. Or send a note to P.O. Box 6540 Pahrump, Nevada 89041-6540

Thank you for being a reader.

The piece below began in the Mojave in 2001 with the first line and I’ve revised it every several months since. Living on a mesa reminded me of times spent on sea cliffs. Desert and seascape, topographies for reflection. I turned 34 that year; this year (really?!) I’ll reach 50. Still enjoying time, relishing space, accepting changes, recognizing connections, paying attention with gratitude.

House in the Water

“If Mother Nature should ever call me to live upon another planet, I could wish that I might be born a beaver to inhabit a house in the water.”

–Enos A. Milles, In Beaver World

I burned the letters I’d been saving all my life the winter I spent beside a wood stove in a drafty house high in the Mojave. Wind rattled the diamond-shaped window panes. Black spiders dotted with blood red hid in the rocks of the sun room wall. A scorpion left tiny replicas of herself in a basket of magazines. I had begun shedding the past as new things poured from me that did not fit the woman I had been. I was in the desert for that reason, to find space to hear myself again. Next, I lived in a dark house on Bank Street, bound by Bakersfield’s highways and loyalty to the idea of sacrifice. The previous owner had collapsed to his death in the foyer. Our dog refused to cross the hall. I salted the corners of the house and chanted for relief but the ghost would not leave. He howled through heating ducts and slammed the doors when there was no breeze. The basement was painted the peach of hospital wards. Scalding pipes carried water to the bath upstairs. In this warm, low-ceilinged subterranean room, I reread journals written in purple ink by the girl I was. Overhead, my husband paced, desperate with the error of having moved us. I did not like who I found in the pages. A hand variously bold and timid, guilty and blameful, hungry for affection, kinder than necessary, prettier than she believed. Dolly Parton sang on the stereo of her coat of many colors, beauty stitched from scraps. At Kmart I bought a bare root rose called Joseph’s Coat. Blossoms ranging from yellow to orange to red on one shrub. I dug a hole deep and broad. The journals went in first, then dirt, and crushed eggshells so the rose would climb and thrive to cover the shed where I’d cried. The house we sold.

Bring me rattlesnakes and dust devils, crows that follow you on walks through sagebrush. Things that move in sand and sky. I need nothing more than time.

What I have most loved I’ve let go. The emptier the hands, the clearer the hearing.

The Yoga of a Farewell Speech

Since the election for the 45th president of the United States on November 8, 2016, my in-home rural yoga studio has fielded a sweep of emotions brought to the small room by students.

Amid the November 9th despair of Hillary Clinton supporters and the euphoria of Donald Trump supporters, the media-free hour-long practices of yoga postures, meditation and breath awareness have stabilized moods and unkinked restless bodies, including my own.

Barack Obama was the fourth presidential candidate for whom I’ve cast a vote in my lifetime. During his first run, I worked a phone bank, dialing number after number to encourage American citizens to vote. The morning I read of Obama’s victory, big tears of joy splotched the thin broadsheet of the newspaper’s front page.

These past two months, along with many fellow citizens, I’m hard-pressed to keep alit the flame of hope that President Obama ignited.

But his farewell speech provided oxygen. In it, I recognize six elements of yoga that my personal practice and professional teaching have held true:

1. “And that’s what I want to focus on tonight, the state of our democracy,” President Obama said. “Understand democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued, they quarreled, and eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The idea that, for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.”

In the Bhagavad Gita, one of yoga’s guiding texts, the warrior Krishna says,

“When he sees all beings as equal
in suffering or in joy
because they are like himself,
that man has grown perfect in yoga.”

Commonly translated as “union” or “one”, with connotations of deep acceptance, yoga solicits harmony within and among difference. In the postures of asana, breath yokes with the body’s movement. In life, we bond in service with our natural and human communities.

2. In his speech, Obama spoke the word “heart” four times including, “Hearts must change.”

The heart, referred to as the heart center in yoga, is the seat of wisdom. Wisdom, from “wit,” can be traced back to an Indo-European root shared with the Sanskrit word “veda,” meaning knowledge. Sanskrit is a first language of yoga. “Veda” relates to the Latin word for “see.”

Whether we’re folding forward leading with the “heart center,” “opening the heart” in a backbend, “leading with the heart” and letting the head trail as we unwind from a twisting posture, the heart is prime in yoga.

Yoga in the family.

3. Having outlined threats to American democracy, Obama offered a course of action: participation.

“All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging. Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning — with our participation, and with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge.”

The practice of yoga exists on paper and in videos, in online and face-to-face instruction. The poses and aphorisms mean nothing, however, without the breath and body of real people.

Yoga calls for consistent action without expectation of result.

Off the mat, we express this by showing up to the work we have in the world, taking responsibility in our jobs, our relationships and neighborhoods.

4. The President urged the people to, “Show up, dive in, stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you’ll lose.”

Yoga demands tenacity, to step onto the mat and try new things, to see what happens, or to take a deep breath before responding to a real-life provocative situation.

Keep up. Keep going. Demonstrate resolve.

5. Like a great yogi, Obama reminded us that life is change. Each breath is unique. Each moment holds possibility. Change is assured.

“You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark,” the President said, “that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace, you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward.”

Day-to-day, yoga’s physical practice reveals the truth of change when the same pose elicits a new sensation in the same body. Through weird shapes, energetic effort and profound stillness, in yoga we tickle the feet of the gremlin of fear, and befriend it.

6.  In yoga, we choose to believe in possibility. Otherwise, we’d never keep at it.

This belief is fueled by love, love for our one precious life, love for the notion that all are one, and love for the wish that all beings may be happy, healthy and free from suffering.

“Yes, we can,” the President said. “Yes, we did,” he noted. “Yes, we can,” he exhorted.

We face uncertainty. We’re paying attention. We must honor our connections.

Thank you, President Obama, from the bottom of this yoga teacher’s heart.

Poem: Salutation

Pleased to have “Salutation” included in The Absence of Something Specified.

This poem arose during a dry Central Valley winter, when we were all waiting and hoping for rain in northern California. To distract from the noise of nearby Highway 50, I’d hung small temple bells from the bare branches of the pistache trees planted in the narrow strip between sidewalk and street.

I was also thinking about how we see. My dear dog, Molly, had rapidly gone blind from glaucoma. Her veterinarian would pull out a model of the eye on our visits to him, teaching us about the wondrous organ.

This poem passed through many versions before settling into this bony shape.

Salutation

rivers disappear w/o weather
determined salmon
swim into dry dirt
following
their peculiar compasses

bells ring to winter storms
when wind shakes bared
arms of pistache trees
rain drips
from down spouts to tick tock
night

people invent
understandings of death
while looking in one
another’s eyes
for pinpoints of dry light
our

marble organs of sight are
so many planets set
in galaxies
of
cadged
bone

Chickpea Poppers

chickpea-poppers2
Make these! Now. They are so savory!
chickpea-poppers
Fragrant from the oven! Minimal clean-up.

These chickpea poppers are a fantastic snack or a light meal with a mango smoothie, a side salad of cucumber and tomato, a tabouli salad piled onto lettuce leaves or all of the above.

  • Drain and rinse two cans of chickpeas (garbanzos)
  • Spread the chickpeas to dry on two cookie sheets lined with absorbent paper towels
  • Cover with another layer of paper towels and set aside for 1 to 3 hours

Preheat oven to 425 degrees

  • Line the cookie sheets with parchment paper and transfer the chickpeas to the sheets, removing the paper towels
  • Roast for 10 minutes
  • Stir the chickpeas and rotate the pans
  • Roast for an additional 15 minutes

Meanwhile, prepare the spicy sauce by adding to 2 – 3 Tablespoons olive oil the following spices and herbs: cumin, paprika, cayenne, thyme, salt; blend

  • When the timer dings, remove chickpeas and coat evenly with sauce
  • Return to the oven for an additional 10 minutes
  • Remove from the oven and season with additional salt and fresh ground black pepper
  • Serve! We eat these at least once a week. Mmmmmm.

Feeling daring? Experiment with other spices and flavors.

 

How the simple, joyful owl came to be

Photo, Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery India, Uttar Pradesh, Kannauj, ca. 1000-1050 CE Sandstone, “Seated with her legs audaciously akimbo on an owl vehicle, this flying yogini has the weapons and bared teeth of a fierce deity and the voluptuous body of a benign goddess. Magnificently carved, it is the only surviving trace of a temple that would have housed 42, 64, 81 or 108 yoginis of similar size.”
 That’s the why.