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

 

Xinghche: Gatha on the Bamboo Walking Staff

This gatha is a love poem to a walking staff.

Living near the Appalachian Trail in Harpers Ferry, walking sticks abound. Some are cherished. Some are picked up and discarded. All are of use when needed.

From what do we draw strength as we travel through life?

The classical poem remind us that not much has changed insofar as who people are. Only our settings shift.

We live, love, learn, do what we can and are what we do.

Frank Gray, American, Walking Stick, c. 1937, National Gallery of Art

 

Gatha on the Bamboo Walking Staff

Roughly broken off with a snap,

Stripped of branches and leaves.

Hard as bone, bumpy and uneven,

Holes and knots here and there.

Although its “heart” is empty,

Pricks and blows can’t pass through.

It withstands frost and snow

Without changing its appearance.

When thorns spring up in the woods,

It is as obstinate as a stone wall.

Without being either yin or yang,

Majestically, it establishes itself.

When it is used, it is vital and alive,

Able to both hold on and let go,

When life is complete, then it kills,

When killing is complete, it revives.

Pointing east or pointing west,

Its power is like a flying dragon,

It can pluck back the bright moon

And make the empty skies revolve.

Going and coming, coming and going,

It relies completely on its own power.

When it is laid to rest, both sages and fools plead for their life,

When it is made use of, even potshards and tiles are beautiful.

From first to last, its function stems from its inherent nature,

Flipping over, lifting up–who knows what it will do next?

–  Xinghche

Note: previously published in Daughters of Emptiness: Poems of Chinese Buddhist Nuns (Wisdom Publications, 2003);  reprinted with permission of the press

Removing the bailing wire of tension

Halfway through her third lesson, a student stopped after practicing a standing twist at the wall and said,

“I never realized how weak I was until I started releasing some tension.”

Elaborating, she explained that she’s worked steadily her whole life, with never more than one or two weeks off at a stretch. She’s approaching 70 now. She is a single parent and a professional, a former flight attendant whose stewardess uniform (“We called ourselves stewardesses,” she clarified) is on display at the Smithsonian.

Having moved to Harpers Ferry to be closer to her daughter and grandsons, she wakes before dawn four or five days a week to catch the commuter train to a government job in D.C. By the time she comes to her private evening yoga lesson, she’s traveled more than 125 miles by car, train and subway and worked a full day. As she rests in savasana, evening sets; she drives home in the dusk.

Tension, she reiterated, has held her together.

She’s learning at this stage in her life to breathe. To fully inhale, to allow exhalations to release shoulders, abdomen, back. As she unwinds with yoga, her back is starting to “tingle.” Other students have told me this, too. It’s not a nerve pain (which could be a warning sign and warrant a visit to the doc) but an awakening, an increased awareness of the surface of the back, of the movement of the skin and fascia.

After she left, as I slid the folded blankets back into the rack and wiped down the blocks we’d used, I thought about how tension compensates for lack of strength. Once we become rigid, with pain, with excessive physical and mental stress, or, as I know firsthand, with grief, it’s so hard to remember how ease and suppleness feel.

Tension is the bailing wire that holds us together when we can’t afford to fall apart.

Tension releases from the inside out. That’s why we typically end a yoga practice with deep relaxation. Such a sweet surrender to rest in savasana and let the body quietly go about its healing.

We talk in Buddhism about creating the causes and conditions for awareness to arise. That’s what all those hours of “sitting” quietly amount to. In yoga, movement and breath, focus and openness, create causes and conditions for The Rest. “Rest,” from “stand” “back.” In resting, we stand back from ourselves.

“Like witness consciousness?” a psychologist asked me once when we talked about qualities of dual awareness of yoga and meditation, how we are actor and audience of the scenes we play out on mat and cushion.

Yes and no.

The sensation of awareness of the internal and external states of one’s body and mind are more analogous to that of the observer.

Noticing what is already known.

Call it the essential self, wisdom within, the reciprocal exchange of breath and breath.

Teaching is graced by moments of insight and my student that night provided one. I will always be able to picture her, her petite and well-traveled body, in the last few minutes of her third yoga lesson: shins placed on a chair bottom, sandbag grounding the shins, back on a thick mat supported by blankets, wrists resting on small sandbags, a soft neck roll under her head, eye pillow temporarily sealing out the light.

Release tension, then build strength. We can’t be strong from hanging on to what no longer serves.

There’s power to be found in the wake of undoing.

Mountain pose

Bringing a single student or a roomful into tadasana, mountain pose, is one of the simple joys of teaching yoga.

Every mountain pose, from moment to moment and person to person, differs, the way an earth mountain appears to change in shifting weather and light.

I love how a group of mountains is called a “range.” In yoga we talk about “range of motion.” The word, “range,” implies both ordering and movement, includes both time and space.

In California, I lived in, beside and at the base of the Sierra and explored other mountain ranges. Here in Harpers Ferry, I rest my eyes on the Blue Ridge as I think and type.

Thank you, mountains! Thank you mountain pose!

Thomas Gainsborough, British, 1783/1784, Mountain Landscape with Bridge, National Gallery of Art

Tadasana is the reference point for all other poses because it establishes our physical alignment. But it also helps us to deepen our understanding of the alignment between body and mind, the middle path between intention and action. – from Cyndi Lee’s, Yoga Body, Buddha Mind

Teaching yoga like a sailor

Teaching yoga feels to me like hanging my heart on the side of the ship of a lesson and setting sail with the crew of students. I love the adventure, the camaraderie, the discoveries, and aligning with the forces of the moment while surrendering to the rhythm of the day.

N. Artsay, active probably 19th century, Ship under Sail, National Gallery of Art

Again and again, I return to this beautiful piece of Bei Dao’s poem for inspiration.

 

The sea spray washed the deck and the sky

the stars searched for their daylight positions

on the compass

true, I’m not a sailor

but I’ll hang my heart on the side of the ship

like an anchor

and set sail with the crew

– Bei Dao, from “Harbor Dreams” in Rose of Time, translated by Bonnie S. McDougall

A teacher’s joy

Grateful and joyful to be able to teach yoga!

Thank you, readers (who have visited Yoga Stanza more than 200,000 times in 2016 so far) and students in California, DC and now Harpers Ferry. I appreciate you!

My greatest joy as a teacher occurs when students experience insights that I had never considered or that run counter to my own understanding. This is when I know the students have made the practice their own.     – Charlotte Bell, Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life

Thank you, timer

Thursday, I packed the remaining odds and ends from my D.C. apartment–broom, jacket, lamp, shampoo, toothpaste etc.–and headed just a little bit West to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia to set up camp.

A thrill shimmies up my spine when I drive across the Potomac and then the Shenandoah rivers, past the battlefield where the Union suffered a terrible defeat at the start of the Civil War and where I now walk my dog every evening meeting new neighbors and listening for ghosts, to arrive at the yellow rental with the red door in Bolivar (my town, literally a stone’s throw from better-known Harpers Ferry).

So, it’s okay to have another change, just shy of a year leaving Sacramento, a settlement at the confluence of two of my other favorite rivers, the American and the Sacramento, a vibrant valley city that for 10 years made a place for me, my poetry and yoga, and remains full of friends, teachers, colleagues and students I think on every day. Thank you.

It’s okay to have another change after being welcomed last April by the beautiful glass and brass doors of my D.C. apartment building perched like a mighty gryphon along Rock Creek’s Klingle Creek.

So many good things happened there in such a short time.

Most of them logged on this blog. Thank you, students. Thank you, friends. Thank you, readers.

During the transition from D.C. to West Virginia, this copper tea kettle was my anchor. That same kettle lived in a dozen homes throughout California before crossing the country last year. It sat in D.C. on this plain white range and heated water for countless cups of coffee and green tea.

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The oven timer on the range has been my meditation buddy. It’s simple to use and provides a helpful one-minute warning.

Situated on my zafu I’d hear, “ding!” and refresh my posture, staying with it for 60 more seconds.

Prepping for a yoga class, I’d set the timer to provide a reminder to roll up the mat and hop the L2 bus, or speed up the stairs to the conference room for chair yoga, or hightail it up the hill to my students in Glover Park.

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A memo slipped under my apartment door conveyed that building management is remodeling the apartment’s kitchen. This range is destined for the dump. Thank you, range, for granola, chocolate chip cookies, kale chips, savory mushrooms, roasted potatoes, sweet potato fries and cornbread.

Good-bye, timer. Thank you for watching the clock.

The kettle’s whistling on another range now.

Meal of a mouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Creature, I See You

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m concealed to observe sidewalk pedestrians. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s by paying attention that anything is learned.

Moments and meditations

        I have continued, for almost a year now, capturing a daily moment – mostly in quatrain form.  Thank you for introducing this practice to me; it has been life-altering!  I am still not a “good meditator,” but this practice seems to bring a meditative quality into my days.
Out of the blue, a Day Poems student shared these words with me last week. Of course her comments made this teacher’s day! And, curious, I found in the dictionary’s serene sanctuary that moment derives from the same word as momentum, having to do with movement.

 

Both poetry and yoga are localized, moment-by-moment endeavors. 

They rely on knowledge of community, the community of words and the body, the community of people who share these interests, the community of the natural world that is both companion and provider. Yesterday, I heard Gary Ferguson on West Virginia Public Radio saying that ancients believed that beauty, community and mystery are essential for health. In addition to being community activities, poetry and yoga tap beauty and mystery.

And meditation clears the heart and mind to receive mysteries of beauty and community. 

 

Meditate derives from the word for measure; we measure moments through meditation. With Day Poems, small poems accrue to form a log of a life lived. I devised the process as a way of attending to the world outside of ourselves while maintaining sensitivity to unique perspectives. It is a form of meditation.

Think also of walking meditation: steps measure a passage through time. If we start by counting the steps, often the numbers fall away. Similarly with swimming. It’s enough to be moving. Forward, yes, because that’s the way we face, but not necessarily toward a destination.

Purely for movement’s sake. As the tidal rise and fall of the breath is the movement of life.

Yoga can also be experienced as a moving meditation, inviting a sense of  flow or ease. This needn’t be elaborate. One motion loved by my students of all ages is a rhythmic combo of a gentle lean into the legs with arms along.

A technique I use to introduce people who are new to breath awareness is to track the breath by silently saying the word and on inhalation and 1 on exhalation, continuing to and2, and3….

Pause and try it for yourself now, counting to 12.

That practice was inspired by Martha Graham. In Blood Memory she mentions how a dance starts by landing on the and.  It makes sense to me in the dance of life: we are always in motion with the breath, even when we are sleeping.

In this way we are not so different from the shark that sways to keep from sinking.

With and, we join with all who’ve ever breathed. In counting the exhalation we intentionally link that precious breath.

We expend our breath as we pay attention. There’s no “good” or “bad” in that. It just is.