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

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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.

Namaste

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.

Namaste

Third Meditation: Vrksasana

Thursday afternoon I was taking one of my favorite Hatha classes. It’s not a class where we focus on tricks or obscure poses, but a class where we deepen our practices. As we moved into Vrksasana (tree pose), and opened our hands to the ceiling, our instructor, Jillian Balzer, invited us to take on spontaneity. “Create some movement in your branches,” she percolated, and we all began swaying our arms in the imaginary breeze. Falling in and out of balance, snickers lifted around the room like budding hope. I couldn’t stop the giggle that escaped me as I wobbled around on my right foot. My leg felt unsteady beneath me, and my arms did not flow gracefully. Instead, I know they jerked around like a toddler’s as she simultaneously tries to move forward and stay upright. It’s not a sensation most adults actively seek out, but in that moment I was thankful for it. I saw a lesson that had been dormant for some time.

Vrksasana is one of the first poses I really understood. It’s my comfort pose. When my writing students are nervously taking their quizzes, I sneak behind the podium, raise my left foot up along the right inseam of my slacks, find that “sweet spot” halfway up my femur and press into my supporting leg for a minute. I ground myself. I don’t let their nervous energy take over the room. When the grading becomes particularly grueling, I kick off my shoes and hop over to the meditation space in front of my window. I watch the needley tips of the spruce tree’s branches and draw my breath into my opening hips. A few breaths with my hands at heart center and compassion returns to my palms, stability is restored in my feet and aspirations for my students return to nest in my third eye.

There are few moments of home for me, nowadays. Even my daylight hours feel like a whim on the wind sometimes, and my bed, less a place of comfort than a piece of furniture to fall upon on my way into a dream. But when I am on my mat, returning to the poses I’ve been studying and deepening for almost a score, I remember myself at seventeen, at twenty-five, at thirty. I remember the ways I was naïve and the moments when I learned wisdom. Sometimes, I’m caught off guard by the lessons I’ve known so well and forgotten. I try to bring those teachings back into my consciousness, but lately, the way our culture is changing socially, I’ve felt more and more unsettled. I’ve found myself drawn more toward the comfort of my poses than their challenges.

I know I am not alone. Our culture has been shaken up so badly in the last ten years. The lessons we’ve taken for granted have uprooted us. I have so many friends who have relocated because of their financial situations; who have taken the kinds of jobs they can get, not the kinds of careers they wanted and who’ve put their relationships and families on hold so they can make just one thing feel solid in their lives. They are sad about it for moment, but then they ground down, find subtle ways to put their talents and dreams to work for them. They create beautiful lives out of thin air.

It’s not easy, though, and sometimes they are caught off balance. Sometimes, so am I. It’s more than just a wobble. When we fall these days, we fall harder than ever before. The safety nets have been pulled out from under us. Even as we look outside of our social circles, it doesn’t seem that there is much to hope for. There are few stories on the news that promote the resilience of the human spirit, and many popular books and movies are too dramatic to relate to. And I don’t know whether it’s because it’s an election year, because our economy is unsteady or because our culture is becoming more hateful, but it seems to me that we take our frustrations out on each other more than we used to. I don’t remember these levels of road rage in my twenties. I don’t remember seeing servers and hosts dressed down so frequently (even when I worked in restaurants). It feels like strangers are reaching out to whoever is standing closest and announcing: “If I’m going down, I’m taking you with me.” It makes our losses all the more difficult because we are experiencing the sensation of being attacked from every angle.

We have been trained that if we gather the supplies that we need, it will all be okay. However, when the supplies are too expensive or out of reach and when our loved ones are busy putting out their own fires, it’s easy to panic. For me, it’s easy to want to give up, crawl inside of myself and try to wait it out until the winds change.

Being in Jillian’s class, and swaying my arms in the breeze, it was uncomfortable at first. Vrksasana isn’t a pose I often fall out of anymore, and I’ll admit that my ego wanted me to stand quietly with my hands at heart center like I have done so many times. I wanted to feel confident in the pose in the way I’ve come to know it: with subtle depth. I was nervous to move outside of my comfort zone. I was afraid of what would happen to the way I saw myself—my home base—if I fell. Then, that moment of spontaneity and uncertainty reminded me of something: the very first time I lifted my foot onto my femur and
pressed in.

I remembered that even though it didn’t feel steady, my supporting leg had a lot more muscle tone than I had ever stopped to think about. Until then, I had never known the ways in which I had been holding myself up and moving myself forward every single day. I hadn’t known how strong I was; I hadn’t even stopped to think that strength was an option.

I’m happy I had a chance to remember it, though, because as I am embarking on this new yogic journey, I’m a little frightened of what might or might not happen for me. I know that inevitably, I will flail my arms a bit, but I don’t have to think of it like that. I can look for moments of grace in the uncertainty.

I can send my roots down, remembering that I have one foot firmly on the ground and the other, rising.

Namaste

Second Meditation: Pranayama

The other night I was awakened by the sound of the wind lifting the branches outside my bedroom window. The leaves shivered against one another as the wind pushed them away from the diaphragm of the ground and they settled, only to hit another wave of air. The branches were being lifted all at once. It sounded like the wind might seize all the trees in the neighborhood, carrying them north on its current. And yet, there was no blast, no gale, just a soft, powerful, constant movement in the night.

I’m an unusually heavy sleeper. Ask my parents; they’ve got stories. (I slept through a fire alarm once in the college dorms.) So for something to wake me at 4:27 AM, it has to be pretty significant.

The trees outside my home rustle all the time. There are three larger than my building that line my apartment. Often I don’t even see them anymore except when their leaves change with the seasons. Something had caught me, though, deep in my sleep. It interrupted the fluid motion of my breath and alerted me to the trees. I can only presume that this something was the awareness that I had actually heard the warm front moving in.

It had been on the news all week that temperatures would begin to rise Wednesday morning around 1 AM. Meteorologists were warning the people of the Twin Cities to prepare for the five-day stretch. Temperatures, they said, would shift from 50-some degrees Tuesday night to the mid 90’s Wednesday afternoon and stay there through the weekend. The people in my state are used to large fluctuations in temperature, but we’re not used to the high heat.  This is an event we see only once or twice a year, and I love it. I want to celebrate it in the foods I cook and the walks I take. I want to enjoy every last second of it. And this year, I heard it coming.

I am finally going through my yoga teacher training and part of this is helping me to enhance my meditation habit. For much of my practice, I had been happy considering only how yoga was working on my body. I reveled in my asanas, I enjoyed the feeling of my lungs expanding and releasing to their full capacity and I was thankful for the calm that movement created on particularly stressful days. However, I had no intention of working through mantras, and I shied away from any chakra talk. I had felt pretty clear that yoga was just an extension of dance.

Now that I am cultivating a more traditional meditation practice, I have noticed a shift in my brain. It’s much more difficult for me to read (and respond) to emails and Facebook posts. I look at them, letting the information flow in, but I am paralyzed to send anything out. I feel increasingly like the people who contact me just want to be heard, but because they are all talking at once, I can’t hear a single one of their voices. Their voices seem alike, like the same white-hot screen. (Yes, you are hearing this from a writing instructor, from one who makes a living on detecting and encouraging the individual syntaxes of young writers.) The voices in the emails are quick blasts. There is no way to tell if the senders’ voices are agitated or depressed. The sonic experiences of their expressions are lost in the period which means the same thing when it is pressed in anger or hope. They make the same mild jokes so they can’t be accused of crassness or confused with seriousness. They make concise requests instead of asking thoughtful questions. They are completely devoid of any personal content or connective tissue that might remind me of how I am allied to the senders in the first place.

And they don’t come in one at a time. They are waiting in line for me to pull up their numbers. How does a person manage five conversations in just a few minutes? I used to be able to do this with ease. I’d read the email, I’d click “reply,” I’d type my response, I’d click “send.” But now I feel like I am holding my breath. I really want to think about what everyone is saying to me. I want to remember the conversations when I see the senders in person, and I want to show respect to the people whom I love and work with.

As I meditate more and more, each email becomes more like the one sent just a minute before. The voices on my computer screen become one voice. It is urgent, almost fretful. And as soon as I respond to it, it boomerangs back at me. It asks for more of me without a thought to the ‘us’ created in what was formerly known as a conversation.

I know I am guilty of this as well. Shouting my requests out there into cyber-space, I become anxious when I don’t hear a response right away. I find little tasks (like playing my next Scrabble move) to keep me online until my request is granted. These tasks can’t take too long, though, because I want to check my email every five minutes in case that ‘urgent’ information has traveled through the wind and into my Inbox. I’ve foolishly turned off my ‘email alerts’ chime in case I end up working on a piece of writing (which has never happened). I waste my own time waiting for replies that don’t change much for me in the grand scheme of things. What could’ve been a five minute phone call—one that allows for pleasantries, a little news and the sighs that quietly reveal the joy and suffering we can’t put language to—has turned into a two hour vacuum of crossword puzzles and Bejeweled. When I finally emerge from my computer, my eyes feel dry and tired, and my brain feels a bit dizzy. As I try to stand up, I become acutely aware of just how disembodied I had become. Often times, I still have not received the reply I’d been so desperately awaiting.

I don’t want to be on the give and take of this line of communication anymore. I’ve been trying little tricks to stop myself from engaging in this way for the last year or so. But the post-it reminders have fallen off the wall. The timer telling me computer hour was up stopped ringing on its own. The New Year’s resolution was dead by the end of February. I’m not sure if meditation can help me solve this one, but I’m also not sure how much that matters.

Because three nights ago, I heard the most beautiful sound. I heard an exhale, and I recognized it as the earth’s ujjayi pranayama—it’s “victorious breath”—as it flowed over my city, building heat, providing an opportunity for transformation. It is the same ujjayi pranayama I have been developing in my own meditation practice. The very same one Patanjali wrote about two thousand years ago when he explained the eight limbs of yoga by encouraging his students to “…engage earnestly in the various practices of making yourself whole.” In this yoga sutra, he is not focusing his students on the give or take we engage in with others. He is reminding us that it is a human wonder to be able to
look inward.

He makes us the promise that through our willingness to focus our attention on recalibrating our internal voice “…all [our] impurities will be destroyed; and then [we] will gain the light of wisdom…” (II.28). That cleansing and wisdom is possible for each of us every day and every minute.

By tuning into the messages our breaths deliver us through the various obstacles in our days, we have a chance to hear our bodies’ interpretations of the new directions our lives are about to take. We begin to hear the possibilities for the people standing next to us or on the other end of the phone. And if we listen close enough, we can hear the earth’s possibilities on the breath of the wind.

I was finally awakened to the earth voice. It is breathing the same message it breathed before Patanjali and as it will continue to breathe long after I am gone. I’m sure I’ve been hearing it my whole life. And while in the past, I may have stopped to think, “Wow, that’s really lovely,” I guarantee that I have never asked WHAT the voice was saying.

Three nights ago, I heard the message so clearly that it roused me from sleep. It wasn’t cracking a bland joke. It wasn’t avoiding sentiment or requesting anything from me except to listen if I could. The message wasn’t terribly dramatic, but it felt like a gift nonetheless. I didn’t hear the earth’s voice with the aid of any technology. I heard it speaking through its own mouth. The earth exhaled, “Summer is here.” And I received that message with the same excitement as I would feel hearing a newborn baby’s sleeping breath. This event, that I looked forward to all winter, had arrived. But this time, my mind was finally quiet enough to hear it.

Namaste

First Meditation: Finding Practice

This month, I celebrated my 19 year anniversary with my love: yoga. When I began my journey, I was a high school student who loved her ballet and jazz dance classes and who always carried her notebook and something good to read. My body was growing up and so was my mind. I had just read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, and I was dying to take some yoga and see what the beginning of his journey looked like. Little did I know that yoga and Siddhartha would stay with me, their natures’ unfolding a little more each year.

For over a decade, I performed with several post-modern dance companies in the Twin Cities. I would come to rehearsals early and devote the lag time between call and performance by coming inside of myself, practicing my asanas and centering my movements with my mind. For me, the body and mind are truly connected because in that same decade, I was getting my graduate degree in writing from Hamline University. It seemed that every time a performance loomed, the more inspired I was to write. There was a lot of time to sink deeper into myself and the poses as I warmed up for performances 3-4 times a week. Conversely, when my dance companies would take breaks, my writing would dry up. I’d poke at edits and try to give myself assignments, but my mind could not connect to my muse.

All that time, I never considered that I was doing a ‘yoga practice’ let alone that my yoga practice informed my writing habit. However, when I retired from performing three years ago, I would often find myself in my living room, sofa pushed back and mat squarely in the center of the room. I’d drop into the wonderful yoga classes at my gym, and lines of poetry would well up inside of me as I breathed through svasana. A few months ago, with the guidance of three of my beloved teachers, I decided it was time. I am now in the final stages of completing my 230 hour Yoga Teacher Training. For the first time in three years, I am beginning to feel at home in my body. I am waking in the middle of the night, bursting with ideas to write about.

So here I am, in the twentieth year of my yoga practice. What better way to celebrate than to share it with you.

Namaste