Fifth Meditation: Autumnal Equinox

I’ve really been beating myself up the last couple of weeks. I’ve been frustrated with myself for not writing as much as I’d like to. I’ve been eating out instead of cooking, and I’ve been avoiding more scholarly readings for fashion magazines and gossip rags. There’s also been a bit of shopping for things I “need” (because my black boots are so last year). In general, I’ve resisted all of the principles that I thought I connected to on my yoga path.

I know my weaknesses are not entirely to blame for this lack of willpower. Environmental factors have in no way helped these impulses. The start of the fall semester mingles with the end of summer. As the work load increases, the sun quickens its pace, and I lose those precious daylight hours that were spent out in nature and with simple pleasures in my heart. I am hurrying up to drink in the last lick of sun while simultaneously gathering the supplies I need for a dark winter of grading.

And yet, somehow, with all of this frenetic energy, I feel as though the world around me has found a way to construct walls to hold me in place. It’s creating a sanctuary to shield me from that which moves too fast and from that which moves me in the wrong direction. In fact, when I try to move forward in any direction, I receive the gentle message to stay put and gather my strength.

I have come up against an old limitation, and as far as my yoga practice is concerned, my asanas are at a literal stand-still. When I was 12, my school nurse found scoliosis curvatures in all three areas of my spine. When I was fourteen, my orthopedist wanted to fit me for a brace, but through chiropractics, that quickly changed. Through the years, I have discovered a blend of therapies that keeps my scoliosis in check and relatively pain free. Some weeks and months, I forget that it’s inside my body. Other times, the obstructions in the nerve and energy pathways are so great that my body feels as though its structure is being demolished from the inside out.

When my scoliosis is at its worst, I get headaches that last for weeks and leave me in dark and silent places. I feel numbness in my shoulders and hands. I tend to drop the things I’m carrying and fumble with door knobs and keys. My natural gait includes a funny side step that lands me on my rear, and I trip up the stairs. It becomes painful to turn my head too far to the left, and my back muscles spasm if I sit for longer than five minutes.

I have a massage therapist, a Rolfer and an acupuncturist, all of whom I go to at various intervals to clear up the discrepancy in my body that tells my spine to carry my rib cage over my left hip as my shoulders and head constantly fight for forward. But as I try to be patient, as I wait for the body work to catch up to muscle memory, I don’t want to give up on my yoga practice. In fact, every body-worker I’ve seen since my diagnosis has commented on the benefits that yoga has on scoliosis. But while the benefits help to hold the treatments, they don’t completely prevent the flair ups. And I worry that the sensations of my curvatures will mar my ability to feel new injuries. So I cut the number of classes I attend. I modify the poses so that I don’t move as deeply, and I end my stretches before I feel the twinge of work in my taxed back muscles.

I wish I could say that I meditate more when my scoliosis announces itself, but my motivation to get into that easy seated pose is about as strong as a whisper. Once I’m there, I’m fine, but the thought of sitting still for an hour, a half hour or even ten minutes, leads me to other distractions. When I finally sit down to retreat into the home space of my mind, the looming memory of past pains threatens to breach my bliss. When it comes to meditation, my fear of what I will find is the obstacle to deepening my practice.

In the decades since that first diagnosis, a pattern has emerged for me. I’ve begun to see that my scoliosis is at its most powerful when a piece of my emotional identity emerges in a more profound and public way. After my semester abroad in Europe, the pain was so intense that a neurologist tested me for MS. When I was applying to graduate schools, I lay in bed as I typed and edited my manuscripts. The curvatures were pushed so far out of whack that it took months for me to move the endeavor back to my desk.

So now that I am halfway through my yoga teacher training, now that I am beginning to conceive of the kind of yoga teacher I will be (not just the one I dream to be), my spine points out in all directions. Each of my three curvatures seems to be leading me toward a different path. Regardless of whether I choose to work more heavily with the alignment of the poses, the breath’s junction with movement or the meditation within the body’s stillness, my scoliosis is just waiting to hold me back. And in the last month, the curvatures have struck the familiar nerves of fear and self-doubt.

I try to remind myself that this is just a pattern, like the pattern of heading to Smash Burger instead of heating the stove for a ginger-kale stir fry. I am, of course, more drawn to the comfort of fried potatoes. (Kale is not a comfort food.) But the excuse I repeat in my head is not one of comfort. It’s that I don’t have the time to cook. My deeper self knows that somewhere between driving, standing in line and waiting for my order, the length of time from start to table is a wash. The deeper truth is that I would rather avoid doing the work. I choose what I know will cause me pain rather than do what I know is right for me.

I know if I cook the meal myself, the long-term hopes for my future are real possibilities. I hope to have resilient skin and strong muscles into my 80’s and 90’s. I hope not to add anymore cellulite to my thighs. Cellulite is the promise my beloved Smash Burger is ready to deliver on. It is the enemy of my hopes. But when I look at the cellulite, it looks like me. And when my back starts to ache, it feels like my back. I am a person with scoliosis. It justifies why I’ve ended up exactly where I am in life…no further. If I’m not careful, this condition can become more than a condition. It can take over; it can become an excuse.

It says to me, “You see, THIS is why it’s taken you so long to become a yoga teacher. By trying to claim that authority, you risk everything.” And it could be right. I could risk my health, my financial independence and my lovely relationship to this practice I’ve languished in for almost two decades.

So I stay safe. I pull back. I make one thing mean another. I retreat inside of myself. I am too afraid to look at the landscape of the place I’ve ended up. I am leery of the the changes I might see. I wait it out instead of taking a minute to acknowledge the very real possibility that I can trust myself.

Of all of the people in my life, I wonder why, when it comes to my future, I trust myself the least.  Especially since for the duration of my life, I have never had a problem deciphering the messages my body has sent me. I am confident that my body knows the difference between damage and growth. Damage has never followed my inspiration without an important moment of growth. I can trust that. I am on the right path, and my body’s signals only confirm that this change is a monumental one.

In a training session two months ago, my teacher asked if anyone in class was afflicted by scoliosis. She wanted to show the class a live example. When I raised my hand, she looked surprised. And while after looking, she could locate the curvatures, she also commented on how subtle they were. As she did so, I felt a bit relieved that my journey into teaching yoga might not be as dangerous as I had once thought. I was also shocked by my possible strength. My teacher saw me as strong when she looked at me. It took my own story of my past to correct her.

Our conversation was small, but it touched on something very powerful which is always in the back of my mind. I don’t think it’s an accident that three weeks later, my first curvature was re-engaged.

I’m glad to have a reminder of the past. There are many important lessons here. But if I want to move any further with my practice, if I want to step into this calling, I need to test the lesson of trusting myself. And I’ve decided to look toward the change of the seasons to help me do this.

For the next couple of months, I will be listening to the signals the earth gives me as momentary reminders to slow down and step inside. Each time I see a tree letting go of one of its leaves, I will be letting go of a piece of my own self-doubt. Each time I see a squirrel rushing over the dried grasses, I will gather a seed of conviction. Each time I feel a moment of fear, I will send it out for the wind to dismantle it, to break apart the limbs which are not working together and send its pieces back to me when the time is right. When my conscious identity is ready to be reborn.



Fourth Meditation: Mantra

I confess, I haven’t posted in this blog for quite some time, but I’ll have you know that it’s not because I’ve been avoiding writing for it. The things happening in my teacher training and in my own self-exploration have been too complex for me to share just yet. But I’m working on them. I’m recording my thoughts, and I’m meditating on them. They will complete themselves as the timing sees fit. In the meantime, there’s one piece of my exploration that I can share.

I know all of you have heard the word mantra before, but there are a couple of you who would like a more traditional explanation of what mantra is. In common conversation, we might hear a person say “always be kind to others; that’s my mantra.” And while it may be that person’s mantra, most likely it’s more of a motto. Mantra and motto are not the same thing. A mantra is a syllable, a word, a name, a phrase, an invocation or inspirational statement. It is chanted repeatedly no less than three times, but most likely, the singer will chant a mantra 108 times. The mantra is chanted in a musical way (though many chanters would not call themselves singers and might even feel a little tone deaf).

I’ve been chanting mantra for a few months now, and I’ve begun to notice that after a few rounds, I feel my lips vibrating. After a few minutes, that vibration moves down my throat into my sternum (or breastbone). I am realizing that this also happens when I speak to people in English because the creation of the verbal word is the act of expelling energy through the vocal organs. When I say “Hi, how are you?” the vibration occurs in the back of my mouth. It is pressing itself away from the body, reaching out to the listener. When I say “I am well,” the vibration happens a bit lower, somewhere between my chin and collarbone, moving in for an assessment of the self, of personal truth. In normal conversation, these vibrations are subtle. Over time, they make my mouth feel dry and my voice feel scratchy, but when I am chanting, my voice gets stronger. The musical qualities of chants make every aspect of articulation stronger, particularly the vibrations.

By using Sanskrit, the vibrations become stronger still. That language was designed to vibrate just as Pali, Hebrew and Latin all vibrate at stronger frequencies than many other languages. These languages are all more than vehicles for communication; they are the creators and sustainers of prayers, meditations and sacred teachings. They were created to bring the human mind to a spiritual place though the use of the vocal organs.

They shift the chanter’s energy to bring ancient wisdom deep inside cellular memory. When I begin my day chanting in Sanskrit, in the hours that follow the tune from that mantra becomes lodged in my mind. When I am in traffic or become forgetful of what was on my grocery list, I hum a few rounds and my calm and centered mind engages itself. The mantra has used vibration to create a sense memory for my body, and it has used words to engage my brain’s ability for abstract reasoning. It has done this in a matter of seconds, and it has righted my course. It is helping me to interrupt previous habitual ways of being and make a new choice without a traumatic experience as a catalyst.

I am merely driving. I am merely at the grocery store. I’m merely answering a student’s question. In all of these ways, I could be creating more challenges for myself simply through bad habit. But because of the expediency of engaging my mantra, I’m hardly aware of the possible drama in daily happenings.

As a teacher, I find myself most drawn to the “Sahanavavatu Mantra” which essentially asks that student and teacher join together in peaceful unity to use knowledge for good and that they retain respect for one another in their shared journey. It’s a mantra that I can chant at home before planning my class or in the few minutes prior to the start of that class period. It is also one that I can use as a student taking challenging classes. I’ve even found myself chanting it silently when conversations begin to veer off course and into more ‘dangerous’ territories of gossip and negativity. It’s helpful to have a tool to remind myself that every person I encounter is a master of something that is important for me to learn, and that this something is not always what it appears. It reminds me to be grateful for
the lesson.

I’m trying to educate myself on which mantras to sing for which life purpose. I’m so happy to have the “Sahanavavatu Mantra” since much of my life is spent teaching and learning. And there may come a time when I feel all of life is centered in these endeavors. But that time is not now. If I try to chant Sahanavavatu before writing, for instance, what I intend to be a quick paragraph turns into six unruly pages. The initial thought becomes lost and a new exploration is begun. I end up going back to the original thought, removing it and starting again. I feel elation for the new idea and also frustration that I’ve lost focus.

There is a step between student and teacher where knowledge exists in experience, where it is itself without being transmitted, only used. And whether I’m searching for a mantra of trusting the process, gratitude, presence or grounding, I have yet to find the
right one.

As many American yogis, I have turned to the great ancient teacher Patanjali to look for an answer, and I have come across something that I’ve found quite freeing.

In Geshe Michael Roach & Christine McNally’s translation and commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, they state that the power of the mantra can only be harnessed if it has “come from a truly holy person, and the person saying it must be someone who is truly kind to others.” Nowhere in this commentary, do the authors claim the mantra needs to be in Sanskrit or come from yoga teachers. In fact, the mantra could potentially come from anyone, and yet mantra cannot just come from anyone.

I am beginning to ask myself in a real way how many truly holy people I know. I am asking myself not “who is god-like” or “who is a Buddha” but at the most fundamental level I am asking, “What do I think makes a person truly holy?”

For me, the truly holy live each moment with the vehement intention to create peace. I think most of the people I know aspire to this intention, but they live their lives with other more pressing motives. I know I do. Little Debbie snack cakes don’t create peace in our environment. The packaging alone has nowhere to go but into the soil, but I love them so much. It’s hard for me to leave the store without a box. If I’m being really honest with myself, I’d admit that I’ve take on more writing classes, not because I see myself as a benefit to students, but because it makes me more money, and I’ll need a new car in the next year or so.

Once I’m in the classroom, I feel transformed. My ego disappears and a higher conversation of the written language springs forth, as I think happens for most writing teachers. But we choose to be functional in our society instead of being truly holy. We make the choice to pay as many of our bills as we can. We are being responsible, not holy, because our culture values personal independence above so many other qualities. To be clear, I don’t disagree with this principle. How could one be holy without having an innate sense of responsibility and care for that which surround us?

I am as god-like as most people I know. And I am so thankful to have my friends and family to love and support me. They are gracious, loving and kind, but they are perfect humans. They are Buddhas. I believe I am a Buddha, but I know in my heart, I have not reached the order of truly holy person.

And I’m working on it. I am trying to acknowledge that my mind struggles with aligning truths in this complex world. I find myself often in an acute fear of the future as though it will be the past repeating itself…or worse.

And so, when the transformation mantra (“Mahamrityunjaya Mantra”) hasn’t work, I’ve turned to poets to find the truly holy. The people of our culture who concern themselves with the sonic properties of our language. I’ve turned to them accidentally, because I’ve memorized a number of poems in the hope that they would become a part of me. My new hope is that even if the poets who wrote these words are not holy all the time, they have conscientiously created something that is. At the very least, these poets are committed to being in constant communion with inspiration, with God or with the deeper self. They have concentrated so completely on their words, editing and reworking them to the point that the mystical editor has said “Yes.”  I’ve found myself repeating lines over and over, some of them from poets I’ve read long ago.

Sometimes they come to me in moments when I least expected them. I wanted to sob on the last day of my perfect writing class that ended in August. I will never see most of those students again. What is the lesson in loss? From Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Layers” I chant “I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go and every stone on the road, precious to me” and though I have no tune to chant to, I bid my students good luck on their next journeys. I know I will think about them for years to come.

As my scoliosis grips my shoulder and prevents me from taking weight into my upper body, he reminds me that he is a genetic condition. I chant from Su Smallen’s “Beloved Is like a Perfect Day” and breathe into the pain. I engage in gentle twists as I lie on my back, and I repeat “Our bodies are made of living, with straps for tumbling through all this, without being let go of.” While it hasn’t fixed the condition (yet), it has eased some of the tension, some of the muscles that have been gripping on for dear life. I’m not going skydiving or even up into headstand anytime soon. But I can trust the process my body is going through.

I haven’t stopped looking for the Sanskrit mantras, and I can’t imagine the day that I stop searching. But as the areas of my life start to appear to me in a different way, I feel as though I have found some truly holy moments in language. As I breathe new life into the words, as they pass over my lips, I create myself anew.