Life. Change.

Every time I practice viparita karani, “legs-up-the-wall,” or invite a student to make the shape, I recall my first yoga class. It changed my life in so many ways.

“How a Yoga Inversion Led to a Life Conversion,” reprinted from elephant journal in a slightly different version.

“Imagine your nipples like headlights pointing straight forward.”

The year was 1995. We still used a blender to mix margaritas and milkshakes, not green smoothies. “Warrior 1” was not yet standard American English. I was wobbling through my first-ever yoga class.

The teacher continued her driving metaphors. In the exercise room at the YMCA, she guided us into a seated twist and suggested we imagine looking over our shoulder to park a car. This was before a screen in the dashboard told you where the rear bumper is.

The teacher seemed old to me, confident. Now I’ve reached the age I estimate her to have been, mid-forties. She had medium-length dark brown hair, creamy skin and a mischievous look in her eyes. I trusted her and did what she said. When she placed us in viparita karani, with legs up the wall and back flat on the floor, my perspective on my body literally changed. “Picture a jack-knife,” she said, urging us to nestle our buttocks closer to the wall.

I don’t remember this woman’s name, but she changed my world. It’s as if I hopped on a bus to a part of town that had always been there but was brand new to me. Everything I saw and experienced in the 90 minutes assured me that life was for the curious. Everything I heard annotated my previous learning. I was a teacher, too, of literature and writing, and recognized in this yoga teacher the combination of creativity and logic, tempered with the caring that makes a teacher effective.

That tiny word—“yoga”—is a small submarine that took me into the deep ocean of physical, philosophical and ethical explorations.

One class. One teacher. New life. I thank my BFF for suggesting the Y. I’m grateful I accepted.

After high school, apathy had slid between Phoebe and me. Both bright but unfocused, pretty but not gorgeous, talented but not genius, we drifted to different regions, Phoebe to the Midwest, I to California, searching no doubt, as youngest siblings do, for someone or something to create a surface on which we could recognize ourselves. When we reconnected by chance, literally bumping into each other at an art gallery in Ann Arbor, the university town where our husbands were temporarily studying, we served as each others’ looking glass.

Always ahead of the curve, Phoebe’s older sister was teaching yoga in Washington, D.C. When she came home from college we admired her insouciance and elegance, her red Chuck Taylor high tops and the scarf draped across her collarbones. When Phoebe saw the YMCA class advertised, she pressed me to attend. I was a jogger with a sporadic weight-lifting habit left over from rowing crew in college. But I’d been studying Buddhism for 10 years and figured cross-legged yogis might have something in common with meditators. I agreed to one class. “I don’t think this is for me,” I said meeting up with Phoebe at the gym’s entrance on West Washington Street, clad in gray sweatpants and a “Coffee is my friend” t-shirt.

Curious about yoga in the last century, I searched online. There you can find an interview with Sting from the December 1995 Yoga Journal. As a Gen-X-er, Sting is one of my heroes.

“I feel it is a path that is involved enough to keep developing,” the singer tells Ganga White. “It’s almost like music in a way; there’s no end to it.”

In high school, Phoebe set the volleyball and I spiked it. She is lithe, a dancer and a pianist. I’m wiry, built for long walks and swimming. By the time I attended the Iyengar class at that Ann Arbor YMCA, years of stooping over children’s desks had wrecked my posture. Photos in the family album say I’d once been at home in my body, climbing on monkey bars, racing across the neighborhood park with my dog, playing the role of Athena in the fourth grade show. Along the path from adolescence to adulthood, I became alienated from my six-foot frame.

Experiencing savasana on that Michigan night with my childhood friend, I was 10 years younger than Sting when he started yoga. I get what he’s saying, though. I’m a writer, aware even in my teens that I’d stay on a creative path by hook or by crook. Yoga is practical and myriad. Since that first class, I’ve studied with dozens of teachers. When I felt ready to teach yoga, I trained first at a small Sacramento studio where I was a regular student. One of the guest teachers, Richard Rosen, emphasized that yoga asana is preparation for meditation. I’d discovered this in home practice. A strong body and fluid breath lead me into stillness. A year and a half later, Cyndi Lee’s advanced teacher training, with its Buddhist strand, brought me full circle in my work and personal lives.

When Phoebe visits our hometown of Washington, D.C. and we meet up for coffee, the word “join” comes to mind. On a lark, I joined her for that yoga class. In the more than 20 years since, yoga — which teachers love to remind us translates as “union”—has joined me with friends, students, ideas, opportunities and insights that make me who I am.
“I’ve learned to trust in the power of love,” Sting says. “Love for oneself, love for the people you’re with, your family, your friends. Love for simplicity, love for the truth. I think that without love, none of it makes any sense.”

When one of my yoga students enters viparita karani—that legs-up-the-wall pose—I notice the surprise and delight that accompanies any inversion. The world can change in a moment. Or at least our perspective on it.

 

 

 

When I started yoga

“How a Yoga Inversion Led to a Life Conversion,” just published in elephant journal.

I’ve long wanted to thank the friend who introduced me to yoga and changed my life.

Thank you, friend, and all friends, teachers, students and family who support this sometimes-challenging and always joyful path! And thank you elephant journal for publishing the essay as well as several poems.

Want to know more about the pose that changes lives? 

Viparita karani.

Move past roadblocks

Karr’s tips for moving past writing roadblocks, adapted for Yoga Stanza.

  1. Keep a commonplace book for copying out chunks of poetry or prose. When I was struggling to understand Wordsworth’s long poem “Michael,” a professor suggested I copy the whole poem longhand. Bingo! I saw the poem clearly, as if through magical reading glasses.
  2. Write reviews for online outlets. Follow the guideline of Right Speech as you review–is it kind, necessary and true?–and remember your task is to serve the reader of the review.
  3. Augment a daily journal with a reading journal. Copy passages, record connections, ask questions.
  4. Copy quotes longhand onto index cards and carry them around. Karr suggests including writer’s name and source. You can also share these with friends.
  5. Memorize poems. I suggest making the shape of viparita karani while you memorize. Or pace the room. Or carry the poem with you to memorize and refer to it.
  6. Write longhand letters to your characters.

More bits of advice that have stuck to my writing socks like burrs:

7. I heard Barry Lopez suggest cultivating another art in addition to writing, preferably something hands-on. Through the years, I’ve crocheted scarves, kept a garden, made postcard collages and baked pies.

photo-2

8. From Julia Connor: Treat your writing as you would your granddaughter (or grandson), tenderly.

9. Also from Julia: Think of your journal as your personal art studio. You have a place to go.

10. From Sherman Alexie: Read a thousand pages for every one that you write.

11. From Susan Kelly-DeWitt: As an artist, you don’t want to feel like you’re moving backwards. I think of this also as being willing to let go of the edge of the pool. Be brave. Swim.

12. Also from Susan: When you’re the least sure of what you’re doing, that’s likely where the magic is happening. Write through uncertainty.

13. From one of the inmates serving a life sentence at New Folsom Prison. “Care for your creativity. Respect it. Take care of it and it will take care of you.” Don’t ever take it for granted. Don’t forget to feed it. When I teach children, I sometimes liken creativity to a dog who benefits from training and requires assistance making a home in our world.

14. From Kate Braverman: The world needs more readers, not more writers. Maybe keeping a journal is enough to satisfy your storytelling and there’s no need to write for public eyes (at least sometimes).

15. One more from Susan: Know that you marry your writing. That’s the level of commitment at which it happens. (Be sure your partner’s on board!)

16. Still want to write? Like Karr, I’m not super-keen on writing exercises per se. But I have held on to The Triggering Town. It’s effective for prose and poetry. Get a taste of it here.

Enjoy!

poses, poise & peace

The goal of yoga, Victoria Moran says in The Good Karma Diet, is poise and peace.

At first I was thrown by the singular verb is. I don’t know if the conjugation choice is deliberate or an editor’s oversight.

But I’m a blogger familiar with typos in her own work (you’ve seen ’em), and a poet with a special endorsement on my language license to play fast and loose; so I thought about it: linking poise and peace into a unit to describe yoga makes sense.

“Poise” derives from words meaning weight with connotations of equal weight and balance.

In yoga we balance on one foot, two feet, hands, arms and, sometimes, heads.

Peace is freedom from disturbance, tranquility.

With a focus on acceptance and appreciation, yoga seems to bring most of us who practice it at least a modicum of peace.

Describing a woman she sees doing side bends, plies and releves in the returns line of a big box store, Moran realizes,

That was when it hit me like a ton of pointe shoes: when the body is flexible, the mind is more likely to be flexible. Wherever you are, in whatever situation, you can tense up and resist, or loosen up and flow. Everybody in that queue eventually made it to the counter, but the ballet lady, unlike the rest of us, did so with poise and peace. That’s why yoga is big on stretching: the goal of yoga is poise and peace; a brain that lives in a relaxed and limber body is likely to have those as its default.

Until I started practicing yoga in 1995, I felt easeful only when underway: walking in the desert, running anywhere, spiking a volleyball, swinging in a playground, swimming, cycling, paddling a canoe, rowing.

My a-little-over-six-foot-tall body felt squished for space most of the time–squeezed behind a reclined seat on cross-country flights, leaning over a student’s desk to review her work, wrenching my neck back into the stylist’s low shampoo bowl. I’d been to chiropractors, massage therapists and regular MDs for neck and knee aches. At age 25, I was squatting at the sink to do dishes to relieve the pain in my low back.

I didn’t know how to move and breathe and be in a way that supported everyday living, my life.

The first yoga pose I ever entered in the first class I ever took at the Ann Arbor YMCA was viparita karanilegs up the wall.

Inverted, back flat against the floor, legs lifted, I looked up at the tops of the feet I usually looked down on and recognized: Everything is connected. 

Just like the song “Dem Bones,”

The leg bone’s connected to the knee bone,
The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone,
Now shake dem skeleton bones!

In The Art of Grace, Sarah L. Kaufman points out,

So many of us view our bodies as incedental, inconvenient, disappointing, embarrassing, better to be ignored. We may see the body as an object for adornment or judicious pruning to fit a cultural ideal, rather than as an organism of myriad capabilities whose value lies in its uniqueness, and is deserving of care.

Sharing her experience of back pain after having been a dancer and carrying three pregnancies, Kaufman offers one of the best descriptions I’ve read of how and why yoga “works.”

In the ensuing years, swimming helped strengthen my back, but what fully banished discomfort and stiffness was yoga, which, like dance, works a lot on posture. I heartily recommend it. What I like about yoga is that it also addresses the inner state of being, with attention to deep breathing and to calming the mind, both of which are essential to grace and poise. The poses are meant to open up different angles of the body to loosen tightness but also to build awareness of how the body works, and how its workings affect your mood and outlook. The breathing exercises expand your inner tissues and organs, which can be both relaxing and energizing.

In a workshop I taught for managers at a corporate retreat, I was asked why I like to work with beginners and what I term “reluctant yogis.” It’s because of the discovery. The smallest gesture or rotation of the head becomes profound when practiced with alignment and attention.

Everything changes.

At a senior center, I taught a woman with Parkinson’s disease. The flowing synthesis of breath and movement temporarily brought her back home to her body.

Among students who’ve been practicing for awhile, we revisit subtleties-fingers and ankles, eyes and tongue.

There’s an awful lot to explore when we give ourselves permission to feel, to feel at home.

To take care.

Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk around
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk around
Now shake dem skeleton bones!

 

Viparita Karani + Ziyong

A gatha verse becomes part of a meditation, often a gratitude practice. Repeated, the sounds of the words of a gatha invite you inside them, similar to lectio divina. Time and space seem to shift. Remember parroting the same word again and again as a little kid? The word loses its sense in sound, throwing the known world a little off kilter, in a good way. Here the poem’s speaker recognizes samadhi in small gestures; she recognizes that wisdom can be found all around. Viparita karani can lead to a similar experience: resting, gentling the body, making space for the heart, wisdom arrives. The shape is uncomplicated, legs up the wall, and just different enough to feel as if you’re transported for a few minutes outside the time and space of a regular day. Renewed.

Traveling Gatha

I still recall how, with my bag on a pole,

I forgot my yesterdays,

Wandered the hills, played in the waters,

went to the land of the clouds.

The lift of an eyebrow, the blink of an eye–

all of it is samadhi;

In this great world there is nowhere that is

not a wisdom hall.

 

– Ziyong

 

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

Pair with: viparita karani

Speak: This poem is two sentences, one of description and one of conclusion. Allow your voice to gain authority as the poem progresses.

Consider the double negative: “there is nowhere that is not a wisdom hall.”

Viparita Karani + Judy Halebsky

Legs-at-the-wall releases us from our upright participation in life’s constant change. The pose offers a “time out” from personal and social history– what has happened and what will happen. When we put feet back on the ground and look up to pay attention, sometimes, like the poem’s speaker, we receive wonders presented to us.

Dark Matter, Pine Trees, Eternity, Room 205

Like a handmade ceramic bowl
uneven, oblong, dripped, bare in spots
Joshua departs for the Army at dawn

birds fly south and return months later
by then they are different birds
it’s not that they change
it’s that the distance is longer than any one life

my job asks me to teach the history of the earth
with both science and the idea that there’s a greater purpose
so students don’t get depressed or have a crisis
when they learn
that our sun is a star that will burn out
that death is part of what defines an organism as alive

at boot camp they pound their teachings into him
how to fold sheets into squares
how to dream in black and white

birds know the routes to nesting places
they know how to cross the ocean

Joshua, be like water
change shapes
float
let sticks, discarded carburetors, broken glass
drift past you

first thing, they cut his hair
put him in uniform, take his picture

he looks like a soldier already, Eve says

Joshua, dug from the foothills
built by hand

a student comes to me with her palm out
holding a little green cone-shaped seed
from this, she says, a redwood tree
isn’t that amazing

Judy Halebsky

Note:  first published in Failbetter; poem used by permission of the poet

Pair with: viparita karani

Speak: The poem uses italics to include other voices. When you read the poem, any poem, let your voice be more than just your own.

Consider: How do you receive the wonder of another, palm outstretched?

Viparita Karani + Pablo Neruda

An inversion like legs-up-the-wall takes you out of time. The feet, lifted from the ground, stop moving; the head experiences a rejuvenation. Regain by resting, falling into silence.

Time That Wasn’t Lost

One doesn’t count illusions

nor bitter realizations,

no measure exists to count

what couldn’t happen for us,

what circled like a bumblebee,

without our not noticing

what we were losing.

 

To lose until we lose our life

is to live our life and our death,

and nothing that passes on exists

that doesn’t give constant proof

of the continuous emptiness of all,

the silence into which everything falls,

and, finally, we fall.

 

O! what came so close

that we were never able to know.

O! what was never able to be

that maybe could have been.

 

So many wings flew around

the mountains of sorrow

and so many wheels beat

the highway of our destiny,

we had nothing left to lose.

 

And our weeping ended.

– Pablo Neruda, translated by William O’Daly

 

Note:  first published in The Yellow Heart (Copper Canyon Press, 1990); poem used by permission of William O’Daly

Pair with: viparita karani

Speak: The poem starts with “one” and moves to the first person plural (“we”). Use your voice to invite all listeners, including yourself, into the poet’s philosophy.

Consider: How do you measure time?

Viparita Karani + Sara Teasdale

Moving through yoga poses creates space within the body. This space allows room for questions, especially nagging ones. Legs-up-the-wall pose, Viparita Karani, can relieve mild aches in feet and back, open the chest, and calm the mind. At ease, partially inverted, what could be a better time for asking a haunting question, as Sara Teasdale does in “Spring Night”?

 

Spring Night

The park is filled with night and fog,

The veils are drawn about the world,

The drowsy lights along the paths

Are dim and pearled.

Gold and gleaming the empty streets,

Gold and gleaming the misty lake,

The mirrored lights like sunken swords,

Glimmer and shake.

Oh, is it not enough to be

Here with this beauty over me?

My throat should ache with praise, and I

Should kneel in joy beneath the sky.

O beauty, are you not enough?

Why am I crying after love,

With youth, a singing voice and eyes

To take earth’s wonder with surprise?

Why have I put off my pride,

Why am I unsatisfied,–

I, for whom the pensive night

Binds her cloudy hair with light,–

I, for whom all beauty burns

Like incense in a million urns?

O beauty, are you not enough?

Why am I crying after love?

Sara Teasdale

Pair with: viparita karani

Speak: Notice how the poem picks up energy after the first two descriptive stanzas. The rhyme scheme changes with the third and longer stanza. What is the effect of rhyming “enough” and “love”? Teasdale repeats the same pair of lines (O beauty, are you not enough?/Why am I crying after love?). Decide how the two sets of paired lines shift in tone by the end of the poem.

Consider: The speaker asks, “O beauty are you not enough?” yet she conjures the beauty of the night. The speaker says she is “unsatisfied” yet finishes a poem. What does it mean for something to be “enough”?