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.