About breath & sun yoga

Poet. Yogini. Teacher

A Yogini Experiences Near-death

About a week ago, I was rear-ended on the interstate. I was on my way to teach a yoga class. Traffic was moving at 50-odd miles an hour when the driver of the truck in front of me began slamming on his or her brakes.

I am lucky that I saw the truck following too close to the car in front of it. I am lucky that I saw the debris the truck was hauling and that the debris gave me pause to create a greater distance between us. I am lucky I slowed down in the moments before the truck started braking. And I am most lucky that in the seconds before I slowed down, I had been thinking about how crazy traffic had been and how many accidents I had previously seen that morning. In the moment before the collision, my thoughts occurred like a warning in my head.

I absolutely credit the many minutes I’ve spent in meditation to the fact that I was clued in and prepared to take the blow on a very subconscious level and that I was conscious to the workings of that subconscious. Because when the truck in front of me braked for a third hard brake, I had the awareness to follow in kind. The young woman behind me, unfortunately did not.

In the blur of what happened next, I’m unsure. What I do remember is that her car hit mine twice at full speed.

I remember that my car was still running when the movement was over and that the only thing impeding me from edging to the shoulder of the interstate was the onslaught of rush-hour drivers running late to work. Honking and gesturing profanely at me as I inched three lanes in my crunched up car.

The thing that is most miraculous to me about this experience is that minutes after I had been hit, I was able to emerge from my car, my skin in-tact, with no broken bones. I was able to make three phone calls to settle affairs and change the course of the morning to accommodate the new tasks at hand, and I was able to assess the damages to my car and the other.

Once we had taken a look at the vehicles and determined that the damage done could be easily repaired, the other driver and I took a few moments to hold one another in a deep and supportive hug, in gratitude that everything would be okay.

We had experienced this terrifying moment together, and we had survived it.

I find so many moments about this miraculous and this, I think, is how I begin to understand my yoga practice as divine.

If we say our yoga practice leads us deeper into our body awareness and the meditation brings us into the present moment, we are really saying that the awareness our bodies experience begins, at some point, to extend out into our everyday lives. That the practice is not even about being aware of our bodies at, say, the grocery store, but about seeing our bodies as small but distinct and integral entities depending on one another and causing for one another as we move through the world.

In essence, while walking through the grocery store, we begin to see what happens when we drop a grape on the floor. How we cause that grape to become displaced. We see how that grape could get stuck under a wheel from our neighbor’s cart or even go unnoticed until someone steps on it. And slips. And even falls to the ground.

I think about the role I played in this accident. I think about what might have happened if I had been a few moments later. What would have happened if the young woman behind me had hit the truck with its debris lose in its bed? And what would have happened to the car in front of that truck? And in a way, I feel grateful that I could be there instead to defray the blow.

The young woman had insurance, my car will be fixed shortly and I have a team of amazing body workers to bring me back into good health. If I could be there to prevent a major tragedy in so many people’s lives with a minor inconvenience to my own, I feel more than happy to play that role.

Through all of this, the part that is hardest for me to think about is that my sweet little toddler was safely with one of my oldest and dearest friends when this all happened. I see what this accident has done to my strong yogi body and can’t imagine what it would have done to his soft baby skin. I think of the subtle (and not so subtle) abstract aching that surrounds me and I don’t even know what he would do with that or how he might ask for help to fix it. Mostly I think about how devastating it all could have been had he been with me, had I not had the presence of mind to slow down when I did, had I been paying attention a fraction less than I had.

It is hard to think about these things, but these outcomes are realities for many people. These are not far-fetched musings, and as frightening as they are, I believe it’s important for each one of us to spend a little time in contemplation about who we really are when we get behind the wheels of our cars.

And as fellow yogis and Buddhas in this world, I ask you take a moment and make this part of your own yoga/life practice. I ask you to be conscious as you get into your cars. To treat your driving as you would your yoga/meditation practice, with the same mindfulness and compassion.

As you approach the drivers around you, think of them like your fellow yogis in class, sending them loving kindness instead of judging that your hurry is more important than theirs.

Breathe deeply and slowly when you feel the quickening of your heart and when you feel distracted by what will happen when you reach your destination.

Be present.

You are in relationship with each driver with whom you travel on the road.

29 March 2015: Support and Change

As a yoga teacher and a teacher of writing, I get the chance to accompany so many people on their life journeys in some quite intimate ways. Some days it’s overwhelming what people share with me. I’m entrusted with such deep and personal information that these individuals hold in their bodies and minds. It’s easy to forget where their woes end and my life begins.

However, I am grateful to have a yoga practice that reminds me that the end and the beginning are the same. And in fact, the people I meet and work with are part of my journey as well. They teach me about joy and loss, giving me a colorful way to see my own experiences.

I am so lucky to be a person whom others feel worthy of their trust, and so lucky to have such an amazing flow of people in my life constantly teaching me, helping me see the world for what it is and not what I wish it to be.

2 March 2015: Fill and Release

I am so thankful to have learned through my childhood and adult development that when my mind is swirling and full, I can come to the page and write.

And I am thankful when my mind is too full to write, that I have learned to stop and breathe. To listen to one moment and then the next.

To allow the world to rush by as loudly and aggressively as it can.

To allow that loud aggressive world to stay far away outside while inside, I can look into my baby’s eyes and hear the bigness of his laugh.

To fill my cup with his big beautiful giggles and hear my soul song pealing back with his joy.

Seventh Meditation: Sahasrara

Oh it is wonderful to have a sweet baby to snuggle when the weather is cold and bright. Between this January and last, I had hardly noticed that it has been colder than average in Minnesota, and I truly have only my little one to thank for that. I am clear that it is not my state of mind that helped me roaming about glowing and smiling one bit. Because now, as little bundle is transitioning into little pistol, he is spending less time in my arms and more, well, running around and carrying every object in his sightline. (I can cite a footstool among the most recent items sailing through my living room.)

And now that little pistol is spending less time in my arms and more on his own two feet, I have found myself with a case of cabin fever. I’ve tried all my usual go-to spots: the conservatory, the pool and the mall (for the winter steals as much as for the walking). I’ve bundled us both up to briskly explore the neighborhood, feed the birds and deer who frequent our feeders, and crunch around following their tracks. I have stayed in and read as many books as I can stomach. (Six in the last month. And I’m in full grading season now too.) For as many ways as I have tried to beat the winter blues, I must admit it: I’ve given up.

I used to have a system of coats, scarves and mittens. I’d break out different sets at variously scheduled moments of winter just to give myself a gage for when I could reasonably expect springtime. I used to say things like, “Only four more months of winter” when January hit, a little to keep a joke on my lips and a little to remind myself not to get too hopeful when the mercury rose to a balmy 33 degrees.

Then, when little bundle came along, I thought of how wondrous winter would be through his eyes. And it has been. There are so many beautiful moments where he has marveled at the crystalline air, tasted an icy glove and reached for the lacy frost at the window. But wonder can only last for so long.

Now with piles of toys and winter-sweat laundry surrounding us, the minus 30 wind chill blocking our every exit, the only plausible step is surrender.

I’m lucky I’ve learned a little about surrender while meditating on the seventh chakra: sahasrara.

I’ve learned that surrendering doesn’t have to mean relinquishing my power. It can mean mindfully putting the power to a better use. I’ve visited the places I can afford to visit (given that this time of year is not a slow one for work, and it’s not exactly feasible to take off for San Diego right now). While I could make a choice to go anyway, I have powerful said “no, I am here in the winter.” While most of the time it feels good to have made that choice, some moments I question it.

In those moments I remind myself not to back down, not to second guess my good logic. Year after year I have chosen to live in this frozen tundra of state (and I have excellent reasons for doing so). Eight months out of the year, I live in the most breath-taking landscape I ever have. And truthfully, if I could get my mind in the right direction, I might say that really eleven months out of the year are perfectly beautiful. The bitter cold of January really does pull the breath out of a person, and that orange-blue sky is like none other. In March, even though it can be frustrating, the abundance of warm, wet snow just calls for early spring hiking. And the cold March rains are my favorite, washing away the salt from the road and steaming up warm windows. It’s February that I just can’t quite get on board with.

Fortunately, I don’t have to. Surrender can mean trusting in something much larger than myself—like the world which is, you know, huge and pulled by such tremendous gravity to the sun (also quite enormous when compared to, say, my footstool) that if I weren’t so busy pouting about the weather, I might have enough perspective to consider that strong pull that also keeps me grounded.

I’m not a person who spends a lot of time questioning how I’m gravitationally pulled to the earth, nor how the earth is pulled to the sun. I am in such a great state of trust that these things continue to be that I can think about other things, like whether to make pumpkin-spice or banana-walnut steel-cut oats in my crockpot for breakfast tomorrow. And while, occasionally, I like thinking about gravity, I am never worried by it. I never fret over whether or not it will stop working.

So why, then, do I become anxious over the change in seasons when I know that spring will be here in a matter of weeks? Is it because winter is unbearable? No. Winter is exquisite. If it were this cold in November, I’d be happily triple-wrapping my scarf around the collar of my coat.

It is me who is restless because in winter, I am faced with myself. And at this point in the winter, I’ve been faced with them for three months. While I am ready to move on and think outside of myself, the weather is challenging me to take one more good long look at who I am. My faults and failed hopes cannot be washed away in a fragrant breeze or cleansing rain. They live like a metaphor with the chill in my bones. And yet, in order to move past those faults and failings, I must become intimate with them. I must surrender to them, in essence, love them as a part of myself.

Who wants to do that?

Not I. And yet, when I stop to really think about how dark the darkest regions of my soul are, I have to laugh a little. Because when faced with real examination, I can see that it doesn’t take much to love those faults and failings. In fact, if a friend exhibited these traits, I would find them endearing in her. I would challenge any reader to find a different answer when truly exploring his or her own faults and failings.

The same can be said for winter. There was a time when I lived in more southern climate, and I remember feeling the same uneasiness when summer reached its most intense point.

It might be human nature to resist the extremes—of weather, of personality, of self—but it is also human to know when we’ve resisted too long.

So here I am winter, opening my arms to you and hoping you will ever return to my life, ever to remind me how wonderfully small and changeable I can be. And even in this stillness holed up in my little home, I feel the remarkable nature of your presence working on me, so that by the time your crystals melt back into the earth, I can emerge a slightly softer person than I was when the season began.

Sixth Meditation: Svasana, the Death of a Year

It always takes me a few days to get into a new year. I anticipate that this year’s shift will be no different in that regard. I’ll still write 2014 on checks (which, yes, I still often make out by hand). It might take me until April or May to start writing 2015 and maybe even until August to start occupying the space of 2015 in my brain. So when it comes to resolutions, I know that this particular kind of meditation means I’m in for the long haul.

I read somewhere that if a person wants to create a good resolution that he or she can really stick with, one must give oneself a good week or two to settle into said resolution. Because, in fact, when we try to shift our habits, our physical and habitual reflexes need a little time reboot so to speak. For me, though, it might take longer than a few weeks.

I know this is true with my yoga practice. I never just pop into a pose. I take time setting the ground work, checking the alignment from the arches of my feet all the way up through my pelvis, my rib cage, my neck, up to that seventh chakra top of my head. And that’s how I approach the pose each day. It took years for me to be able to lift my arms over my head for Vrksasana. And years longer to focus my drishti inside myself. If I were to be as intentional about my new year’s resolution, it would take a bit time to set up a good one as well.

And if I were to conceive of 2014 as its own kind of practice, then this period surrounding the shift of the calendar would be my svasana.

This year, I’m trying to enter the year by being conscious of how difficult this shift is. And I’ve started by consciously slipping into a metaphorical svasana for my 2014 “practice.”

Whenever I teach a yoga class, I rarely cue “open out into svasana” without helping students ease into it. Maybe we do a restorative pose for a few minutes first, or maybe I give some visualization cues on how to relax their bodies into the pose (which I say to myself every time I release into svasana as well), but regardless of how I get them (and myself) into svasana, I make sure that the body and mind consciously move further from one another so that they can find a more intuitive connection.

When coming into svasana myself, I want my mind to lull above sleep without slipping into it. I want the heavily restorative meditation that I find in a yoga nidra class, mind absent of thought, memory and breath. I hope I can stay there for a few moments before gently finding myself reborn into my life from my practice, integrating the practice with my life without needing to compartmentalize my practice.

That’s what this period of my year, I hope, can feel like as well. As the holidays melt away, I hope my meaning-making mind lulls over my responsibilities, just being with them and seeing them for what they are. I hope to find myself present in them without judging them so that I can my life and what it needs without the ego’s work of “who I want to be” taking hold.

God bless the people who can make resolutions and stick with them. I am not one of those people. I’m not sure I’m type A enough to be.

I am unable to have a lasting forceful change in my life. In fact, any time I’ve tried to enact one, it’s never been successful. And I think part of the reason why is that any forceful changes I’ve tried to make are somehow outside the scope of who I am.

One example might be the time I resolved to get online only once a day.

I was very conscious that I didn’t want to spend so much time online, so I set up a schedule for myself that I could check all of my email addresses, Facebook pages, Scrabble games and other sundry sites at one time, leaving the rest of my life for non-virtual experiences. I’ll put the results into context: I ended up spending a two to three hour block online at a time. And while those two to three hours helped me step away from the computer for longer periods of time, I ended up needing to transition between the virtual and non-virtual periods of my day. My brain felt fuzzy. I was too keyed up and once I left the computer, all I could think of was what I wanted to search on Google the next day. I was actually keeping a “to do” list for what I needed to accomplish online. I spent more time organizing my online time than I did when I living more organically with my screen.

The resolution was well intentioned, but it was an intense and impractical diet from the life that I needed to live.

With a little thought, and a little experience in what was going wrong with my resolve, I came up with this instead: no screen time while eating, no screen time while talking to real people.

It works a lot better for me.

I love resolutions, and I love to think that the people the whole world over might set their sights in waves at the same moments to being better for one another and better for themselves. I love being a part of this collective betterment, and I’d like to be one of the people who can be accountable to my peers for my resolutions. In order to do so, I’m drawing on the lessons I’ve learned from my yoga practice. And instead of simply being conscious of who I’d like to be for those around me, I’m stepping back and breathing and noticing without grasping onto the first shift that feels right.

New Year’s Eve is today, and in the interest of complete honesty, I still don’t know what my resolution will be. However, I know this:

For all the things about myself and my life that I’d like to be different, I have an amazing and beautiful life. There are so many things I could be anxious about. There are MANY things about our world that I am angry about. I want my little kiddo to group in a world that is different from the one he lives in, and I don’t have long before he is old enough to start remembering it. Having said all of that, I also know that with all that I want to be different, the thing that will make the biggest impact for him is who I am from one minute to the next. That subtle shift in person, coming back constantly to my pure and simple self, can dramatically change the course of my life and of his.

So as I move mindfully and intuitively through my life over the next couple of weeks, I will keep this thought under consideration:

My resolution will not come from a place of deficiency; it will come from a place of gratitude.

I invite you to consider making your choice from the same place.

side Plank 12.31.14

18 August 2014: Flow and Flow

It has been almost 20 months since my last post. And oh so much has happened in that time. Most notably, I’ve given birth to a perfect little baby who has taken over every area of my life. Of course, the quotidian alterations are to be expected. My days are much more scheduled around meals, baths and naps. What once was the perfect happy hour is now story time. I’m thinking more about my own overall health and emotional wellness now that this little sea monkey is depending on me for every one of his needs.

Even the smaller moments of life seem to be centered on being a parent. I’m reading books on parenting as opposed to those from the NYT Book Review. I can’t remember the last time I listened to a podcast while soaking in the tub. The free time I would have spent knitting and baking has evaporated, and in its place, we have swimming lessons. All of this is nothing if not a welcome change to my world. Of course, I miss my life the way it was, but the way I self-identify has begun to change. I’m okay letting certain parts of my life float away for a little while. I don’t need to be a person who accomplishes everything she has set out to. I don’t need to be person who has homemade muffins for friends every time someone comes over to visit. I don’t need to be someone who wears cute scarves and earrings.

I’m willing to let go of outcomes, certain comforts and appearances. I’m pleased to let my heart overflow in each moment I get to spend with my baby sweetness.

So pleased, in fact, that I’m not at all concerned with what’s happened to my yoga practice. After giving birth, I couldn’t even walk up and down the stairs; a down dog would’ve been completely out of the question. And yet, over the last several months, I have gently been testing the strength and flexibility of my muscles. I’ve been slowly finding out the number poses that I have to retrain my body to accomplish. My body has changed so much since my little one’s birth that I’m still testing my balance both on and off my mat. In doing so, I’m finding a deeper layer to my practice. It’s a new and exciting way to focus my awareness, and while I might only be able to find the time to take one class a week, I am able to emphasize my personal practice in an ever personal way.

My little bit has helped me to have a deeper perspective on what’s really important to me and how those things are different than the activities I merely enjoy. He’s helped me to let go of what isn’t working for me now, and he’s also helping me to work the activities that I do love back into my life. Some of those activities look so much different than they did, but they feel like they’re transforming to match the person I have now become. I recognize their importance to me because I’m making the time for them. They could just as easily have drifted away from me with, say, moving my bed every week to vacuum underneath it. How grateful I am to release that one!