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

28 January 2013: The Nature of my Knowledge

The other day, I was driving to campus for the beginning of the semester. My first days back are all faculty meetings and syllabus writing. These are not the days of exciting energy when students are refreshed and opened to learning new concepts and creating new ideas. These are the days when my colleagues and I secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) wish we could be home reading books that deepen our own knowledge. We wish we could slowly contemplate the perfect class, plucking ideas down as we were inspired by them. The first days back for faculty have often, in the past, given me the worst Monday blues of my life. I would even say they made me incredibly cranky.

However, as I was driving in for this semester’s beginning, I was listening to David Newman’s 2010 album ­Love, Peace, Chant. On it, he sings some of my favorite Kirtan tunes, and as the wheels were turning, I couldn’t help but chant along with him. I began to notice the sensation of joy rising in my chest, and instead of thinking about all of the enrollment statistics and new policy debates that might take place on this day, I thought instead about all of the wonderful people I work with.

I became in awe of all of the smart and generous people whom I get to call my colleagues. I was excited to hear their ideas and share my own even if we hadn’t had time to methodically sculpt those ideas into the perfect classes just yet. I felt so confident in that sensation of joy, that I began to feel trust in the process. As I sit at my desk, I can do little more than theorize. I can work through an idea and find its most perfect language, but that doesn’t mean I’ve found its most perfect expression, I need my colleagues and especially my students to verify the class is a good one.

My teacher Michelle Pietrzak-Wegner has been known to say, “If I waited to be a guru before I began to teach, I still would not be teaching.” I agree with her whole-heartedly, and I’ll add that if we waited, there may be something lacking in what we bring to our students. As we wade through the minutia of the ideas, we sometime miss the process that helps us arrive at our final understanding of a lesson.

Today, I am thankful that there is no such thing as absolute knowledge. We are in the inquiry of our thoughts. We can be confident and present enough to claim how exciting it is to be always on the precipice of finding, and we can take this journey with one another.

2 January 2013: The Loop of Utter Implosion

Today, I am thankful for the spiritual education that has taught me to observe the thoughts that enter into my mind. I caught myself feeling utterly afraid of having booked only eleven credits of class for the spring semester. (Normally, I teach fourteen or fifteen.) I became afraid of what that might mean for me financially. I became afraid that it might mean I’m not as secure in my job as I have been in the past or that I’ll have to find a new field of work. Every discrepancy I’ve had with a student in this last semester (though they’ve been few) came rushing into my brain, and I began to question my education, my abilities and even the path I’ve taken in this life.

I immediately sprang to my computer to come up with a plan B. I searched as many Web sites as I could, looking for editorial and writing jobs. I wasn’t being picky in my search: free-lance, part-time, even full-time job placements. I love teaching writing. I feel called to do this work, but my fear of not being able to pay my cell phone bill became so great in that moment, it overtook my love for my work. This, I think, is one of the most profound moments anyone can experience. The moment where fear interrupts and overtakes the ways we ground ourselves in the benefits of love.

Though I love my job so much, I was ready to give it up after just fifteen minutes of anxiety…until it occurred to me that I have just spent the last eight months of my life getting my certification to teach yoga. My plan B has already been put into place. It’s a plan B that still includes working with adult students and incorporates my second deep passion: synthesis of movements in the body. I had even forgotten that I created this plan B so that I could sustain my energy to teach writing more effectively. I have meant for the duality of these teaching modes to complement each other. However, since I’ve been so stuck in my head grading finals, I haven’t actually had a lot of time to practice yoga in the last couple of weeks, let alone look for yoga teaching jobs.

And here is where I am thankful: that the whole time I was spinning out of control, I was watching it happen. My hands were typing keywords into the various search engines, but my mind was listening without moving (or judging). My mind waited for the hiccup in the loop to stop and say “hello, are you paying attention to what you are doing?” And as soon as it did, those fifteen minutes got to be a great scene in my life’s comic theater. Because my spiritual education has led me to meditate, it has provided me with a tool to prevent my brain from utterly imploding (which it is wont to do from time to time).

Instead of finishing up my day by dusting off my editor’s resume, I had the opportunity to write a new resume, one for the yoga teacher I am becoming. Instead of fear and anxiety moving me backward, love and excitement (and the ability to see the punch-line) allowed me to step forward.

So “yay” for all the lessons. “Yay” for committing some of them to memory. “Yay” for the teachers of my past and the teachers of my future (including my students) who have and who will lead me deeper on this path. How lucky to be able to self-observe.

10 December 2012: A Lot Like Home

In the last few weeks, I’ve had a hankering for a condo. I love the area in which I live, but I’m desperate for my own parking space. A friend offered that this hankering might have something to do with all of the changes in my life. She thinks it might be the product of my need for stability in such an unstable time. I think she might be right.

So today, on my way home from yet another stressful and uncertain day, I stopped by the plant nursery. I bought three new plants with an eye toward tending a few new roots. As I sit here typing, I feel high in my own living room, the oxygen is so thick.

As the scent of rosemary and everblooming hoya mingles with my psyche, I realize that I am Spanish moss. I grow where I am and carry my reserves in the pit of my stomach. My stability comes from within.

In this apartment, I can have whatever permanence I want. I love this apartment. I love the glass doors on my kitchen cabinets and the tree full of animal life outside my bedroom window. I love the street I live on, its mix of energy and quiet.  I love how I feel when I enter the front door, like I can let go of the tail-end of the breath I had been hanging onto.

Lately, in my search for a permanent home, I haven’t spent a lot of time appreciating the life I’ve created for myself. I’ve only been thinking about the life I wish I was living. I have been searching for the fork in the road where I went wrong. And I think I’ve finally found it. It was two weeks ago when I started making place=stability. I have done so many adventurous things, and I have always lived according to my own heart. Being THAT person is what grounds me in my life more than any mortaged cement foundation ever could.

I am so thankful to have a beautiful shelter to hold me warmly as the first lasting snowflakes of season settle in their places for the winter. I am thankful I still have the option to dance on the wind.

5 December 2012: My First Night as a Writer

Today, I am thankful for that dark night in my childhood when my own writing became both a mystery and an answer. I am thankful that at a young age, I found such an enigmatic lens with which to view this world. Thirty years later, I am still returning to words to seek the truth of myself and the truth of the world. I am thankful that the word “truth” is just a word to be lived in the moment, and that reality is its own thing that I come nearer to each time I sit down to write.

27 November 2012: The Poetics of Email

I am so thankful for the surprises of poetry in email. I love the stream of consciousness blurt of expression that comes between directions and requests. There are so many moments, in personal emails, when the writer slips out of her communication to me and begins to tap into her true nature.  It is the intimacy of letter writing. The writer can hardly stop from being so inside of herself. The words she uses are drenched in her pronunciation. The pure joy of language catches me off guard between advertisements (and there were many this cyber Monday) and meeting minutes.

I am thankful for another kind of email poetics as well: the well-crafted line that’s been revised, revised and edited only to contain some happy accident of word play (which seems no accident). These messages move me off point and into the approaching storm of my imagination. For a minute, I get to wonder what world these words live in when they come from without me. Eventually, I know I need to respond to my senders’ requests, so I do, putting the poetics aside for a minute until I can formulate a clear, concise response and click “send.”

I always go back, though, and save these quick notes to some special folders, only to lose them as more come in. I can’t keep every lovely bit of language that comes to me through the ether, but that has never stopped me from trying.

And it didn’t stop me today when a perfect stranger sent me a real-life, honest to God poem…in tercets, nonetheless. How beautiful is that? A person took the time, not to write for any gain or functionality, but because the words were so inside of him, he had nothing left to do but let the letters rain onto the page in perfect sans-serif puddles.

And I was lucky enough to witness it.