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.

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

Forest Bathing as a Mindfulness Practice

Curious about the mindfulness practice of “forest bathing,” I looked into it recently for My Little Bird.

The Benefits of Forest Bathing

“STAY AWHILE,” the trees call out in Mary Oliver’s poem, an invitation to “forest bathing.” The term, translated from the Japanese shinrin-yoku, means immersing yourself in the woods; it’s an attentive way of being among trees, under the sky, on the earth.

“Forest bathing is slowing down and connecting with nature with all your senses and it’s something you can do very close to home,” says Melanie Choukas-Bradley. The author and naturalist leads forest bathing walks in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park and regional open spaces. Forest bathing, she says, is linked to other mindfulness practices like yoga, Tai Chi and meditation, “but there’s another dimension to it because you’re feeling a connection with nature.”

That connection Choukas-Bradley describes seems to reduce stress and foster well-being. Studies conducted at Japan’s Chiba University, Center for Environment, Health and Field Services and described in the book Your Brain on Nature, found “that spending time within a forest setting can reduce psychological stress, depressive symptoms and hostility, while at the same time improving sleep and increasing both vigor and a feeling of liveliness.”

Guides like Choukas-Bradley facilitate forest bathing on the walks they lead.

“You’re engaged with nature and nature has a slow sweet pace, and it’s very rejuvenating to be around trees and listen to birds and smell the autumn smells from the earth and just feel fully alive.” She adds, “If we’re only engaged electronically, it’s not enough.”

At the heart of forest bathing is quieting the mind and awakening the physical senses. And it works, says Barnesville, Maryland artist and avid walker Tina Brown who took her first forest bathing walk with Choukas-Bradley in Rock Creek Park in October. The women have collaborated on guides to the plants of Sugarloaf Mountain.

“We were asked to focus on a tree,” said Brown, “to look closely at the bark and to pay attention closely to the stream, the water and rocks and smells and sounds.”  Choukas-Bradley, Brown said, invited participants to dig deep into their immediate experiences.

A typical forest bathing walk might begin with breath awareness practices or a poem, drawing people into the present moment. What’s called an “invitation” follows, a suggestion to explore a quiet spot alone and notice with all the senses, listening, observing, savoring scents and touching leaves and stones.

The mental and physical benefits of spending time in nature through forest bathing can be felt in a nearby park.

“I’m always encouraging people to connect with their own backyard or park down the street,” says Choukas-Bradley, “to find a place of natural beauty that’s very close to where you live and visit as often as you can. It’s a form of intimacy with nature.”

She described her own special sitting spot in Rock Creek Park. The day we talked, she had just seen a kingfisher in the stream.

“It’s so rejuvenating to walk through this forest in a park created in 1890. The trees are huge. I am so intimate with this place that all of the changes that I see over time are incredibly meaningful. It’s like any relationship, the more you know a person the more you love the person; it’s the same thing with nature.”

Spending the time is key. Forest bathers set aside cell phones. They suspend conversations on politics, movies and work. They let go the need to identify a bird or classify a blossom. There are no miles to log. Wonder reigns.

“When I lead walks,” says Choukas-Bradley, “my favorite moments are when everyone gets quiet. We’re looking at Virginia blue bells blooming; I love it when people stop talking and just feel the quiet moments of pure reverence for nature and pure awe.”

A survey sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and cited in an article on forest bathing in The Washington Post states that Americans spend 87 percent of their time indoors and 6 percent in an enclosed vehicle, on average.

Choukas-Bradley believes forest bathing could shift that percentage, inviting more and more people to re-connect with the nature around them.

“Our culture and our way of life separates us from nature, so we have to work at it a little bit. It’s a practice like anything else. If it’s important to you and you make time for it, the rewards are boundless.” she says.

Ready for a dip into forest bathing?

As with any mindfulness practice, you can start small, with five or ten minutes. Next time you’re walking to the train, detour under a tree. Pause. Touch the bark. Lean against the trunk.

Or pause on a bench during errands. Lift your face and watch the clouds, feel the breeze on your cheeks and mist from a nearby fountain. Smell the fresh-cut grass.

Or, on a walk with a friend through a park, agree to drift in opposite directions for a few minutes, smelling the air, collecting fallen leaves. Then reconvene and share what you observed.

Participants in Choukas-Bradley’s walks range from 20 to 80.

“It’s for anybody who enjoys nature and wants to get outside, de-stress,” says Brown, the artist. “You’re not thinking about anything but being present.”

A wonderful aspect of the natural world is that it’s vast enough to absorb our moods.

“When despair for the world grows in me/and I wake in the night at the least sound/in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,” writes Wendell Berry in his poem The Peace of Wild Things, “I go and lie down where the wood drake/rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.”

The peace of wild things is a form of resting in the world. It’s a cleansing: Forest bathing both restores and rejuvenates.

“It’s healing and it’s celebratory,” Choukas-Bradley says. “There’s a great joy in feeling alive in the forest or in the field or any natural setting. It’s true that it’s comforting if you’re troubled or depressed, but if you come feeling happy your happiness will be enhanced by connecting with natural beauty.”

Why Yoga Stanza?

Isn’t that, after all, what a stanza is for,
So that after a night of listening, unwillingly,

To yourself think, you can walk, slightly hungover,
Through some morning market, sipping tea,
An eye out for that scrap of immaculate azure.

– Robert Hass

Three years ago, I launched Yoga Stanza. Happy anniversary, dear blog!

I was curious to identify intersections of poetry and yoga. I wanted to highlight the quotidian. After being a dedicated journal keeper since childhood, I discarded old notebooks to live openly online.

What a wonderful surprise that you all have taken the time to read these offerings. Thank you, thank you!

 

So, why the name Yoga Stanza?

Well, the yoga part…that’s obvious.

And, stanza? A stanza is a group of lines forming a unit in a poem.

“Stanza” derives from a 16th century Italian word meaning “standing in place.” Stanza is also interpreted as a roomThis poem from Robert Haas, is a keen example of that.

I hoped this blog to be a little room, a virtual studio, an alcove or nook, where you could read something inspiring, enhancing, amusing, comforting or just plain lovely.

(Thank you to YS’s guest bloggers and contributing poets and presses for your posts!)

In yoga, an asana is a posture. (There are lots listed on this site, often paired with poems.) The word also contains the meaning of a “seat.”

With each asana, we take a seat in a moment in time in a place in time. We inhabit where we are with dignity, compassion and integrity.

The seat can be a spot in line at DMV or in the center of the sofa flanked by friends. The seat can be in an easy chair with a cat on the lap or on a bicycle zipping down a hill.

Both the words “yoga,” often translated as “union,” and “stanza” invite reflection on time and space.

We are one : we are two.

We are inside : we are outside.

This is now : that is then.

Where is the bubble in the center of the carpenter’s level that marks equilibrium?

Where is your fulcrum in the see-saw of a life?

In poetry and in yoga, — in life —, what is the tension between unbounded creativity and defined structure? Where can we be strong and pliant? Still and fluid?

This morning in a lesson I offered to students ways to feel into the expansiveness of an exhale. The students are entering their sixth month of practice with me and we’re looking at nuances of breath.

An exhalation is not truly an emptying the way all the air can be squeezed from a balloon or a bag. There can be on the exhalation an enlargement, an elongation, even an amplification.

Every exhalation contains qualities of an inhalation.

Every inhalation contains qualities of an exhalation.

Alive, we breathe one breath. Stitches along a seam of time.

Similarly, all the world’s poems are part of one whole poem.

The end of each poem tones beyond the last uttered syllable of word, the quiet between the exhale and the inhale.

And that resting pose, savasana, that concludes a yoga class? It’s but a pause in the ongoing rhythm of who we are and what we do.

And who you are and what you do.

Like many of you, I’ve seen breath leave a body for a final time. Not an exhalation, that ultimate moment is more of a departure, a separation, a taking of leave. Afterward, all seems quiet, subdued.

Yoga Stanza, dear readers, is suspending her breath. I’m turning more attention to teaching: face-to-face, hand-to-body and heart-to-heart (as my teacher, Cyndi, puts it). You all know teaching yoga is my true joy.

I’ve returned to journaling with my favorite practice of keeping a commonplace book, transcribing passages from my reading to rediscover down the line and possibly weave into concepts for classes.

I’m practicing asana and meditation, breath awareness and pranayama and pratyahara, walking outside, cloud watching.

You can find me at home in the world. After all, It’s All Yoga – as the studio where I cut my teaching teeth shows.

Please take a moment to subscribe in the sidebar; you’ll receive any updates such as those delicious recipes!

You can also stay in touch:

Email: alexamergen(at)gmail(dot)com

Facebook: Simple, Joyful Yoga page or Alexa Mergen

USPS:  1703 West Washington Street, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425

Be well!

P.S. Peruse the blog’s past offerings. Posts are organized by topic and searchable by key word. Lots of good stuff here, all available (including the poems and recipes!) to share. Please do credit me and other contributors for our ideas: this project has been a labor of love. Love, Alexa

 

 

 

 

poem: Everything falls in autumn

Welcome autumn! A love poem for the season.

Everything falls in autumn

sycamore fronds of gods’ large hands
dry drops of birch leaves
confetti of caterpillars in ivory, sunflower, tiger
orange, clover green, tulip red and tulip black

We too fell in love in this season are
falling now into another into
the planet’s soft soil where bones
are words to tell an account–

hollow skull of a nuthatch
a sow’s pin-shaped fibula
one white-tailed deer’s hollow tibia
bleached ribs identifiable as ands

– Alexa Mergen

Compassion is the whole

Autumn with its fading greens, bright golds, deep reds and fiery oranges, its liquid sunlight and blue sky spotted with white clouds, its cooling temperatures and slowing pace, seems like the quintessential time to practice compassion, for ourselves, each other and the earth.

 Compassion is not something you have, like a virtue or cultivated quality. It is rather an expression of your larger being and can be understood as integral to your belonging or interbeing in the sacred living body of Earth. Compassion boils down to not being afraid of the suffering of your world or of your self.  It involves being open to what you’re feeling about that suffering (grief, fear, rage, overwhelm) and brave enough to experience it. It helps to know that we are all going to die. And you have this precious moment to get close to the suffering and see what it has to tell you. You can’t heal something you’re afraid to get near. Compassion is what impels you to act for the sake of the larger whole—or put more accurately, it is the whole acting through you.

More on compassion from Joanna Macy here.

 

poem: Chemical Elements

Chemical Elements

My heart is tired today. Tired of the round black zafu,
its unflagging suggestion of a conical haven.

Tired of flat pink September roses, the glass
of shattered beer bottles at the bushes’ roots.

Along the avenue relentless joggers run, ears
plugged with music or news. City dogs wait

nervously to go-ahead across the pitted street.
They have twenty minutes to crap and pee.

From the urban trees catbirds hawk
the hot chocolate of enlightenment as

butterflies struggle into their condensed
existence. My students know to seek beauty

in the fissure between O and K
on either side of all and right. But,

I’m lost this morning in the captions
for all that’s happened, the twilight sortie

into nothingness from humanity’s
so muchness.

My tired heart has set on ocean’s deep sand
where sightless gelatinous creatures twirl

through aquatic space, where sound
is movement and everything smacks of salt.

– Alexa Mergen

 

This poem arrived after a period of extended “sitting,” as in sitting Zen. I’d gotten up and exited my DC apartment building to take the dog for a walk on the crowded city avenue; I started noticing things. My thanks to poet Luis Omar Salinas, who once was and may always be my favorite American poet (along with Walt and E.D.) ; he’s kept me close company for many years. 

Although this poem arose from sitting still, it might be helpful to remember that meditation doesn’t always lead to a feeling of creativity, bliss, or even contentment.

After a day-long sit with Edward Espe Brown years ago, I remember feeling very pissy as I rode my bike home. Brown is funny and low-key like most Zen priests: it wasn’t him. It was the intensity of sitting still and being with the big question mark of existence ?. 

Another time, I bailed on a day-long sit at my home zendo, All Beings, knowing I didn’t have the composure yet to put aside my agitation from weekend travels. Sometimes taking a walk and receiving a poem are best for body and mind.

Sitting meditation feels sometimes like being a loaf of rising bread dough. Something’s happening all on its own, both very ordinary and quite magical.

Meditation can be simple, even joyful, but it isn’t always easy. It does lead to clarity…eventually.

Insight can pop up like a praying mantis on the other side of a screen door.

Or all of a sudden a bit of advice sounds in your ears like the seemingly random chorus of cicadas.

It’s all about possibility, receiving it and letting it go.

 

“Poetry,” Alice Oswald says, “is not about language but about what happens when language gets impossible.”

Yoga, I’ll add, is not about the living body but about what happens when the distraction of that body dissolves.

And meditation?

Meditation is not about the mind but about what happens when the mind, as Kosho Uchiyama says, opens the hand of thought.

Peace, all.

 

No-bake Apple Butter Breakfast Bar

These breakfast bars will start your body’s engine and keep it revving all morning.

breakfast-bar

In a large bowl, combine

  • about 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • about 3/4 cup smooth “natural” peanut butter
  • about 1/2 cup apple butter
  • dash of cinnamon

Microwave for 30 seconds to one minute (optional.) Stir until smooth.

Stir in,

  • about 2 cups rolled oats
  • pumpkin seeds (raw, unsalted work best)
  • sunflower seeds (raw, unsalted work best)
  • sesame seeds
  • currants.

Spread in an 8-inch square baking pan lined closely with aluminum foil (let the edges of the foil overlap the pan). Place a square of waxed paper to fit on top and press with fingers and palm of hand until even and close-packed.

Refrigerate for 12 hours or more.

Lift out of the pan using the foil edges and place on a cutting board. Remove the waxed paper. Slice into squares. Store in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Delicious served with juicy fresh fruit like sliced peaches. In winter, a glass of orange juice washes the bar down nicely.

Any combination of nut butter and seeds and dried fruit might work. I’ve been meaning to try almond butter and dried apricots. Another liquid sweetener might do in place of maple syrup. Try other spices, too, like ginger and cardamom.

Experiment and enjoy.

Whiffing breath

A technique to practice when feeling overwhelmed is the whiffing breath.

Sit in a chair with the body at ease. Look for length in the back of the neck, ears aligned over shoulders and chin parallel to your lap. Rest the eyes on a spot straight ahead. Notice the movement of the breath through the body, inhaling and exhaling through the nose.

Sniff in the next inhalation. Sniff-sniff-sniff as if taking a whiff of a scent on the air. You might feel a contraction in the abdomen with each whiff as if the navel is moving toward the spine, but this is not a forceful action.

Really, it’s as if you’re a wolf catching a scent on the wind or a house cat investigating a bouquet.

Exhale slowly through the nose or pursed lips.

Repeat two or three times. Then sigh, shrug the shoulders a couple of times and resume a normal breath.

Adapted from Complete Yoga by Stella Weller.

How (we) animals grieve

At the start of her lesson, a young student of mine reports that she fell down the stairs at her middle school during a passing period. She has the bandage to prove it. A friend who was with her told my student that she’d never seen someone fall so slowly. The student came up with bruises and a scratch. She wondered if her complete absorption in the present moment helped protect her from greater damage.

What did you think of when you landed? I asked.

I wondered if my arm was broken and if it was if I’d have a purple cast.

So comfortable in her body, when it’s experiencing equilibrium and when it’s not, I can hope she’ll be somewhat safeguarded from stockpiling the anguish and pain one’s tissues, skin and muscles invariably go through.

Working as intimately as I do with my students, one-on-one and in groups of two or three, I get to know the stories of their bodies. Not a therapist, not a doctor, I’m primarily an extra set of eyes and ears. Seeing students, receiving their reactions as they move and breathe.

I’m thinking of students who have been operated on, once, twice and sometimes more, pieces removed, scars left behind.

A student lifts an arm and winces. I ask if she’s in pain. She replies she’s not, but that something happened. I remind her she’d once had surgery in that place and she responds it was a long time ago. The body remembers.

The issues are in the tissues, yoga teachers like to say.

Yoga…direct sensation…immersion in experience.

Like a linguaphile in a new country, a willing yoga student arrives on the tarmac of his mat eager to explore, to try out new ways of communicating. Only he seeks not to bridge the space between himself and another but between his perceiving self and his latent self.

This dual awareness may be one way we humans differ from other animals.

Generally, we anticipate pain, we anticipate death.

We fear feelings before they even occur. We dwell on those that have passed.

Barbara J. King writes in How Animals Grieve,

Other animals may alter their behavior when a companion is ill, as did the chimpanzees who surrounded a dying female at the  Scottish safari park, or the goat who leaned hard against her friend the Shetland pony to help keep her on her feet. They may feel concern and act on it. But only we look far ahead with dread, or relief, or a mix of the two, aware that death is coming.

The 6th grader–tripping through time and space without clutching to it –was merely moving. This oneness with experience could be a result of her four months of yoga study, or her personality which is curious and lighthearted, or circumstances, or youth. None or all.

Human beings categorize. We have to in order to catalog information in time, to build knowledge and acquire things.

My hope is that as this student’s mind strengthens in its ability to analyze, synthesize and evaluate, her body remains awake to sensation.

So that if and when she suffers a bodily loss in the course of living, her mind might cede to the body and allow it to feel. And when she suffers an emotional strain, her body might support the mind’s attempt to integrate the information. That she may feel, even pain, knowing that the only way out is through. (And that applies to joy, too!)

Alone of all species, we may pour our lamentations into art, as grief-memoir writers do. With the exception of the embodied grief that may be expressed in dance, though, it may be when we still our unique creativity that we feel closest to other animals who grieve. We grieve with human words but animal bodies and animal gestures and animal movements.

I wrote of grief for many years, others’ and my own. As much as I cherish the decades I devoted to writing and as grateful as I am for readers and publishers, it’s been accrued minutes on the yoga mat, and directly on the grass or the ground, under the shelter of a trusted teacher’s attention or alone, that has admitted forgiveness, solace, love and compassion into the cells of my being.

Breaths after breaths without syllables filling them.

The precious silence of feeling.