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.

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.

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!

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.

Fifth Meditation: Autumnal Equinox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fourth Meditation: Mantra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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.