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

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

 

 

 

 

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.

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

Olive Oil Almond Cake

olive-oil-almond-cake

Leaving the butter behind? I revised this DELICIOUS almond cake to use olive oil instead of butter. It’s light and fragrant, lovely with a cup of green tea.

Blend together

  • 2 fresh eggs
  • 1 scant cup good quality white sugar
  • 3/4 cup + 2 Tablespoons good quality olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons almond extract

Stir in 1 cup flour

and spread in a lightly greased 9 inch round glass pan. Top with blanched, sliced almonds.

Bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool at least 20 minutes before serving.

Enjoy!

Spuds ‘n’ Kale

Autumn comfort food. So quick. So easy. So yummy.

FullSizeRender

Wash several fresh small red potatoes. Cube and cover with water in a large pot. Cover with lid. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until tender when pierced with a knife.

Meanwhile, wash and tear into bite-sized pieces one small bunch of fresh tender kale. (I like the leafy kale for this dish, not the dinosaur or lacinato.)

When potatoes are done, drain. (It’s helpful to leave a thin layer of water in the pan.) Top potatoes with prepared kale and replace the pot lid. Let the heat from the potatoes steam the kale briefly. Remove lid and add enough good quality olive oil to coat the spuds. Mash by hand with a large wooden spoon, smooshing the potatoes and blending in the kale. Season with sea salt and fresh ground black pepper.

We often eat this as a late supper with a glass of apple cider or with sliced apples or sweet radishes.

 

 

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.