The dogs are barking. It is early morning and the dog alarm is going off. I have been up for awhile, which is good because I would be getting up now anyway with all this cacophony, all this howling and barking. India is noisy. Sometimes there are periods of quiet. But mostly it is very noisy here.
Even the yoga teachers and the yoga students here are noisy. They cry and moan when they are practicing. Not all of them, and not all of the time–but some of the women constantly moan. I wonder if the practice is really that hard for them or if they are just expressing themselves vocally? Is this some sort of discharge like the incessant howling and barking that I am hearing right now outside of my second floor apartment on Lakaki road?
The giant clock behind me is ticking, but it is stuck at 5:55 and has been for more than a day. The rhythmic steady nature of this ticking is soothing. But the jarring barking and constant yelling is to be contended with, breathed with. It is not going to go away, though there may be occasional lapses of several minutes or even a few hours.
One of my teachers here is in a lot of pain. She is in obvious physical pain. But also vivid emotional pain. I feel for her. And I feel love for her. For who she is and the gifts she gives. I see in her a young girl sometimes. I see longing, and the memories of a some different time in her eyes. I see a strong and strange beauty in her swollen, stiff and challenged body. She has trouble walking and so shuffles carefully across the floor in her thick woolen socks . But when she does her yoga practice, which she does in front of all of us, it is inspiring and beautiful. She sometimes moans or whimpers when she is practicing. But she does so quietly – and honestly. I say honestly because it really seems like an honest vocal expression of her inner challenges. This woman has incredible will-power. She has a willingness to get in there and work and tend to the challenges of her body/mind no matter what.
I watched one day as she knelt on all fours and stretched one leg backwards and upwards while extending her sternum and chin in the opposite direction. An assistant helped her lift her leg. She appeared to be doing a sort of warrior 3 action or a warrior 3 intention. Warrior 3 is a pose where you stand on one leg and extend the opposite leg and both of your arms away from each other with the body parallel to the ground – sort of like superman. She was extending her body like a dancer, or an archer with a giant bow. She looked like a graceful warrior of a woman, on all fours, doing her pose while being helped by another woman. Her body was full of intention. I saw the clear and fierce intention to extend fully and completely in two directions at one time. She was lifting more than her leg. It was arresting.
She works at the grill (sets of window bars) and does a revolved triangle, creating a sustained and lengthened twisting action. She hangs in the ropes and has the assistants help her do her backbends which are filled with the same fierce will to expand, to open and uplift herself .
One day she came in to the hall, climbed upon the platform, and sat in with her legs akimbo in a pose we call upavista konasana. There was a bench in front of her where she rested her chin on her hands and then placed her hands on her face, over her face and eyes. She opened her hands enough to see again, but then kept her hands under her chin. Again, she looked like a young girl. She looked sad. I felt so much love for her in that moment. I sat still, and let the breath flow in and out of my heart, feeling with her, and sending her love. It is all I can do, that and practice authentically, honestly and as non-violently as possible.
When she teaches it is like Jazz. She improvises with us. It is a dance. She can no longer move with her body in the way that she used to. But she does dance with us. She dances through us. We are receiving so much: it is a transmission on many levels.
I love and respect my teacher, but I do not want to emulate or transmit the yelling that happens here. I do not want to emulate or transmit the harshness, or what can feel like an abusive form of pedagogy. I know that I have done this very thing at times in the past. I have copied, unskillfully, my teachers. It was not true or authentic for me to teach or practice in such a manner. And I must be vigilant so as not to transmit this.
But this transmission, which is the courage to live as fully as possible in the truth of our experience and forge ahead with honesty, both in our teaching and practice, is a stark and simple reminder of the power of authenticity.
I was teaching a weekend workshop out of town recently and one of the teachers in attendance told me that he was having a difficult time in his practice. This person is a studio owner and is overwhelmed with responsibilities. He said (and I have heard this very sentiment expressed by many a student and teacher alike) that it was easier just to plug in an audio or video tape and be guided than to do self directed practice. “I just don’t want to have to think of what to do.”
And I know some Iyengar teachers who almost exclusively practice along with the audio or videotaped classes that we have been able to purchase in Pune. I am not judging these approaches to practice – different approaches can be helpful at different times. At the very least, practice is happening. And if the student is being guided by someone as brilliant as Geeta Iyengar, then by all means follow along.
But I also feel that the statement “I just don’t want to have to think” is worth examining. I understand this completely. It is nice to be led. That is one of the reasons students enjoy coming to classes. Actually, I think there are many students who do very little, if any, self-directed practice and rely almost exclusively on the classroom experience (or audio/video tapes) as their daily yoga practice.
So, back to the statement, “I just don’t want to have to think.” Maybe that is the problem. Thinking more than feeling or sensing. Thinking or analysis has its place, but feel first. How about sensing the body, feeling the breath, and following these guides for awhile? What about giving yourself the opportunity to tune in this way. How about sensing, feeling, then acting as Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen has written in her book Sensing, Feeling, and Action. Where might we go? Maybe here. Right here in this body, with this mind, just as it is.
I have found that tuning into my body, really listening to what it is communicating and letting the practice be lead from the bottom up, so to speak, to be deeply satisfying and irreplaceable. This type of practice can only be self/body/breath led. Now, often what happens is once time has been given for the body to speak – to be felt and followed – then a type of dance ensues between body and brain/mind. A sort of bottom up/top down dance emerges. Intuition and intellect go back and forth – playing, if you will. It is a dance between a more body directed practice and one that might have a more traditional or intellect directed form. And what is so wonderful is that body and mind then become yoked, joined and as naturally communicative and harmonious as inhaling and exhaling. They become dance partners. Or as William Butler Yeats writes “how can we know the dancer form the dance?”
To dance in this manner, trust must be built up. I am reminded of what BKS Iyengar calls the “yoga vitamins.” These are articulated in sutra 1.20. They are faith or trust, vigor, memory, absorption, and wisdom or intuitive insight. The last one is key. Prajna is defined as wisdom, insight or intuition. How can we cultivate intuition if we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to do so? Insight comes from seeing inside, not looking outside for guidance. Outer guidance from a teacher is very important, but insight and intuition are the children of inner seeing, inner sensing, inner listening. It is a deep, intimate and private dance. And it happens within the privacy of our own body, heart and mind.
Trust, the first vitamin (and i am using the word trust here because faith can be such a loaded term for many). But trust is built, little by little, through experience; as BKS Iyengar says, it “is confirmed by revelation.” He describes faith or Sraddha as “felt trust.” He also says that trust is instinctive and faith is intuitional. Well, that sounds like the Prajna or wisdom/intuition/insight described above.
Both Christopher Isherwood in his book How to Know God, and BKS Iyengar in his book Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, write so beautifully the topics of Sraddha and Prajna (faith and wisdom). When writing about sutra 1.20, both of them describe a process involving little daily efforts which build over time into some deep connectivity that gives us the capacity to be a loving and intimate friend to ourselves even in the most difficult of times. This capacity is also supported by the other vitamins of virya (vigor), smrti (keen memory) and samadhi (absorption). Practice then becomes as essential to living as breathing, eating and sleeping. And what I mean by practice is the daily act of communing or tuning into, seeing into, listening into ones own body, heart and mind; and doing so without (in my opinion) an external guide in the form of a teacher or tape.
Again, I am not knocking the value of the tape or teacher. I love to listen to teachings on audio tape and being lead by a wise voice in my asana, pranayama, and even meditation practices. But trusting one’s own heart, building faith or “felt trust” as described by BKS is something that comes from the little daily effort to turn off, for a time, all those outer voices and tune in to an inner experience, or least do a little dance between the two.
We need vitamins from the food we eat. We need practice vitamins, too. And the wonderful thing about what BKS Iyengar calls the yoga vitamins is that they are manufactured from within, by practice itself. Practice begets the vitamins themselves. We are fed and nourished, and lead, from within.
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
from Among School Children by W.B. Yeats
That is what I woke up to: that thought, “I feel scared.” It came like a clear flash. In that moment, it was true – that was what I felt. There was no point in any denial. It was a moment of seeing that there was this field, or ground, or cloud of fear that has accompanied me in this life, and in certain moments, starkly reveals itself.
Around age 50, when you go to the doctor, health care providers start to recommend various screenings and tests. I am not writing about the value or validity of these screenings, but about what has been unearthed and revealed in my own heart/mind in response to this stage of life.
Basically, I feel scared. I know that I am not getting out of here, meaning this life, alive. But this voice in my head says “why go looking for something, some problem?” Of course I know the value of early detection, etc., but this response of mine is really about the “big” fear. Now when I think about my husband having tests, I think yes, I want him to do everything he can to stay healthy and detect things early and take care of himself. I do not want to lose him. I know that eventually, we will lose each other, but my immediate response is “Honey, do everything you can. Stay on top of these things.”
But then I do not seem to apply the same logic to my own well being. Denial is clearly the stronger sentiment.
So I woke up mulling over why I didn’t want to do this test or that test. And then, after mentally wrestling with my own mind, came the crystal clear and embarrassingly simple resonance of something very true. It was a clear bell ringing, “I feel scared.” But the interesting thing about fear is that it is not relegated only to those things that I don’t want to do.
“I have been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I have never let that stop me from doing a single thing that I have wanted to do.” This was written by one of my creative and feminine muses, Georgia O’Keeffe. I love this because it acknowledges this cloud or ground of fear that can ride us, or that we can ride upon, and yet we do not have to succumb to it. Nor do we have to throw it off, fight or wrestle it. O’Keeffe says she was absolutely terrified every moment of her life – and yet, look at her paintings. I do not see terror or fear as an overwhelming voice in them. I see a world that is full of fluidity and vibrant color, that fairly leaps from the canvas. It feels as if these perceptions or these visions came from an honest place, from clear eyes. From honest eyes. It is a delight to see the world through her eyes. To see the depth and immensity of the New Mexico night sky with its plethora of stars from beneath a tree as in the painting The Lawrence Tree. We see the night sky though the bare tree branches which reach upward like roots into a vast dark space speckled with stars. The night sky becomes the earth, the ground. She writes, “I never let it (the fear) stop me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.” It takes courage to fully share one’s view of the elephant, or to share the intimacy of the inner sky.
Take for example the O’Keeffe painting entitled New York, Night 1928-29. This is a painting that looks down upon Lexington Avenue at night-time. We see a view of the city from a sky perch, suspended in mid-air we peer out and into a darkness that is now dotted with the stars of man-made lights. We look out from a dense wine colored blackness to see the hopeful warmth of the little gold and orange lights speaking to us from the building windows. The car lights far below on the avenue run like a river of sparkling water reflecting a life that continues to flow beneath us and around us – and even without us. Then an illuminated roof top beckons the eye “come up here, rest up here.” In this darkness there is life, there is warmth. There is the comfort of other people who really are just like us – little lights in the darkness, illuminated for a time. This one on, this one off, but always some light, someone, somewhere. When I look at this painting, it as if I am there, in the sky of the painting. I am in its stillness, yet feeling the city move from a distance. I can hear both the silence of the night sky, and the soothing sound of the street traffic. I am both warm and cool. It feels true.
I remember this view of the city from the street level, from the inside of a taxi in December of 1985. I looked out at the city lights while sitting beside the man who is now my husband. We had just begun dating. We were happy and in love. It was a very cold evening yet I was so warm inside. And the city moved all around us, and we were moving in it, and yet all was still, all was well.
“Sometimes it is the fear that brings you the presence.” This is what Rumi says. Love is like this. It is scary. It brings presence. We may indeed be terrified – of loss, of the unknown, but we fall into it anyway. We learn to flow with it, like the traffic.
When I do a difficult yoga asana, or one that scares me for instance, I feel much more present. I know that I have to pay attention. To my body, to my breath, and yes, even to the fear. Then I act with all of myself. I may feel fear but in the doing, the acting, the being, the loving, the fear falls away, it is transformed. It too changes, like everything else.
There are many ways to bring steadiness to the heart and the mind, to the body, to the breath. And steadiness does not negate movement. There are many ways to cultivate awareness. And there are many ways to work with fear. I write here about the acknowledgement of it, and of acting anyway. Whatever that action might be. The fear may be there, as a sensation somewhere in the body – but so what. There is work to do, people to love, paintings to paint, poems to write, a life to be lived.
Maybe Rumi says it best:
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
I have taken a long time to write this, as it was, and still is an extremely painful memory for both me and my husband.
That day was hazy, and yet sunny. But it was like a weird dream that you can’t wake up out of. You are on the edge of something but only feel the sickening sense of loss, impending doom, emptiness, and grief. My father was dying. It was his last day. And Tom and I drove to get something to eat at the nearby Subway. It was mid afternoon in early July in Pueblo, Colorado. It was so cold in the hospital ICU. I remember feeling so cold and glad that it was warmer outside, and that there was light. The pale yellow of the light was sickening and soothing all at the same time. I was falling. He was dying.
Then Tommy yelled, I screamed. There was a cat crossing the highway. So many cars it seemed on both sides of the road and then that awful thump, bump, bump and we saw in the rear view mirror that cat, that calico cat get hit by another car yet again. I wanted to die right then. Oh god, I screamed, Why? Why? Why this kitty? We had killed this creature. We love cats. We sometimes say that we love them more than people. Never, never would we harm an animal if we could help it. It all felt so surreal and out of control.That really was it, an out of control onslaught of life and death and chance.
We were crying and moaning, both of us. It was as if my Dad was right there in the road. Everyone I ever loved right there in the road on this day of yellow haze. Thump. Life is over. It hurts and then it is over. Just like that. And the people drove on.
We circled back and saw his lifeless body on the other side of the road. Then a pickup slowed down and stopped. They got out and went over to the cat.
That was somebody’s cat. Somebody’s baby. Some part of my heart died that day.
This is the kind of thing that can get treated as black comedy in books and movies. But this was one of the worst, if not the worst day of my life. And my time with my father that day was both the worst and the best. Life is so strange, it happens. And then it is gone.
My father used to joke that when I was a baby I used to say how much I loved the color lellow (yellow). I remember the light that day as hazy pale yellow, at least when we were outside. Inside it was a cold, steely blue. I still love pale yellow. It is like morning. It is the color of the past. Like an old photograph. It is the color of the light that surrounds and infuses my heart when I think of my dad, and now, that day.
Pink and white. Peach fuzz. Soft beyond belief. Like a baby. Oddly, like a baby’s bottom, even though it is on the front of his body. It is his abdomen. He has a seam down the front of his body, like a stuffed animal. He is in fact a chubby stuffed animal, even though he is real cat. And the seam indents at his lower belly and looks like a tender pink baby’s bottom.
Sometimes I feel that there is nothing, nothing more important in the world than tenderness. To tender our hearts and minds, and bodies. Why so much struggle? I have to ask myself this.
What is it about my kitty’s abdomen that so melts me, melts my heart and tenders me? It is so vulnerable and exposed. It is real, and temporal.
He has licked off some of his fur. Years ago it was worse. But it has begun to grow back, fill in a bit like a forest after a fire. New growth. Tentative growth. The scars of angst still there. That one can see…something happened here. There was a struggle. There was some need to remove, to release, to work out some some anxiety. Do cats feel anxious? We are all alive, and so die, and I doubt that cats realize this. Our vet says he just was over grooming. Or maybe it was just that uneasy feeling that I have sometimes. I do not need something to explain away this sense of heartache and joyful sadness and incredibly heart rendering, tendering, love that I feel when I see my kitty’s belly exposed like this. It is the reality, the tender sweet vulnerability that it speaks of by its pink and white purity, its animal simplicity. We are all an exposed belly. All of us.
My other cat Butchie exposes his belly with unabashed glee, whereas Sunny is protective of this area, and of his body in general. It has taken years of unrelenting tenderness and affection to build the necessary trust in Sunny that has allowed me to touch him there.
Butchie, however, is a hedonist. He exposes his belly, and has since he was a kitten. He does so, like he does everything, with abandon.
“Hey, here I am, pet me!”
“Relate to me, rub me, pat me, the harder the better, firm, soft, I like it all!!!”
“And feed me, too!!!”
“I am comfortable in my fur, in my cat body, just as it is!”
Not so with Sunny. They are (even though animal behaviorists might disagree) just like people – or we are just like them. We are all animals. Why do we separate ourselves from this fact, if indeed we do? We are the same. We are born, we may, or may not, reproduce, and we die. And we love. And we struggle. We are wired to do so. Wired by what? This is the mystery. I don’t really need to know the answer to this question. But I feel the question so deep in my heart, and in my own vulnerable belly, that I feel this inexplicable connection to my cat’s exposed, and vulnerable, belly.
I have grown tired of the stories that try and re-frame experience and package it so we can all feel more at ease. Do the non – human animals have these stories? I like stories. In fact, I adore stories. They comfort and distract. The imagination is amazing, a process that has divine potential. Stories are the narratives that hold the immensity of feeling and experience. They bring a sense of coherence and meaning to the inexplicable. But the feelings that provoke the narratives, the sensations and heartache and longing from which they emerge, they are to be felt, fully felt, not explained away by the narrative.
I long to be like Butchie, and sometimes I am. But I am also very much like Sunny. Maybe I am both of them. Maybe we are the same.
Tell about it.
Creativity is an expression of divine play, and I think our yoga practice can be such a place/space if we allow it to be.
The theme of the retreat I will be teaching this year at St. Joseph’s Abbey will be about the cultivation of both discipline but also – and most importantly – play in practice. And more specifically, the cultivation of creativity in practice. This theme is so dear to my heart; I have always found play in all its myriad forms to be like prayer. And I read somewhere that the German word for holy (selig) is the root of our word silly. So a healthy dose of playfulness, even silliness, might be the very element some of us need to reawaken the freshness and innocence that is key to creativity, and to what Zen master Suzuki Roshi calls beginner’s mind. When we are playful, our hearts become lighter, the challenges of life become more bearable, and more workable. And a spacious sense of humor can certainly make practice more fun, and make life itself a bit more livable and enjoyable.
When we practice playfully we tend to life with more of ourselves, with the wholeness of what and who we are. Because play makes space for all those aspects of ourselves that we, or other people, might deem unacceptable. Playful practice is at its heart inclusive. This type of practice is an invitation to live life with our whole body, with wholeness of who we are. In fact, celebrate that wholeness, and let whatever transformations occur come from a place of affection and acceptance of who we are. And then transformation is not only possible, it becomes impossible not to transform in some way because play is actually just that: a type of transformation.
I am very enthusiastic about play, its power to inspire, heal, and integrate us. There is something wonderful about what happens when the spirit of inquiry takes hold of the imagination and the flow of inspiration begins. It is nothing other than freedom flowing from within, and it is mysterious at that, because it seems to require form, or some container for expression, or certainly aided by that. And like dance, music, poetry, etc., asana can be such a form. Pranayama can be such a form. Chanting or singing can be such a form.
Something Wonderful Right Away is an oral history about improvisation in the theatre. It is a wonderful book, but I find that it is the title alone that sparks the imagination. Something wonderful right away? It is true that yoga, like any skill or art, requires consistent devoted practice over a long period of time. It is an essential aspect of deepening and refining awareness. But in order to sustain the practice over many years and experience the joy, and love, that is at the heart of the art, then waking up to what is wonderful now is also important.
If you have ever experienced the magic of improvisation in a creative art, or experienced the feeling that something mysterious, something otherworldly and yet vital and true can flow through you, as if you weren’t even there, then you will understand what I am talking about. If not, that is okay, too. But I imagine, if you take a moment and think about it, you do know what I am talking about and have experienced it yourself. It is like suddenly waking up to what has been there all along but that you did not see. It is about the seeing and experiencing awe on a daily basis. Can you remember what it was like to lose yourself in play as a child? Or in something that you love as an adult? If so, you can understand the sense of freedom that can come to one’s heart in these moments. I believe that yoga is about connecting to and tuning into this space, this place of awe and wonder that still exists in all of our hearts, if we can wake up it. If we can wake up enough from our routine sense of self, or routines of practice, long enough to realize that the point of a path or way is to awaken to what is. And to awaken to what is wonderful, now. But how?
It seems essential to find, in our yoga practice, and in our lives, this mysterious balance between precision and play, between discipline and delight, until they become an inseparable part of a whole just like inhalation and exhalation are both essential and inseparable parts of the breath.
We will dive into this theme, little be little, step by step. It is a process. I have been exploring precision and play in my life for many years, maybe not fully realizing that this is what was happening, that this process was what I was actually exploring, but it has been a thread I have been following and am only now fully waking up to this realization. So I am very enthusiastic about sharing and exploring with fellow seekers. We will attempt to unpack and explore this theme which in my mind is as vast as the ocean, as yoga, and as life itself!
Imagine the earth as seen from space. There are no countries, no borders or political boundaries visible from space. This is what the astronauts have said time and again when they gaze down at our planet. They do not see the dividing lines of countries, the ideologies, the walls and fences drawn in the mind that harden our hearts and separate us from one another. Instead they describe the round blue and green orb with awe, and a mind and heart opening with an expansive sense of wonder, kinship and belonging.
When I look at my mother’s face in this photograph, I see so much more than the face of an almost 90 year old woman. I see a tree. I see the earth. I see a child who is still vulnerable but one who has grown up strong in spite of a sickly and emotionally difficult childhood during the Great Depression. I see one who has been blown and bent. Her skin and flesh are more fragile now and she bruises so easily even from minor bumps and mishaps. And though legally blind she still somehow sees. She sees through the sides of her eyes the outlines and essences of things.
I see the face of a survivor, but also that of someone or something letting go.
She has been reminiscing and appreciating her life lately, and that of our lives together, and describing as much in ways that I have never heard her do before. Her voice sounds so sweet, the edges of anger are gone. And I find myself pulling back as if I could somehow hold this tree, this earth, this heart and life, at a distance. As if to separate myself in some way. Not so much from her, but from the hurt, as if I could. I can’t really do it. Because there is no border, no true boundary, between our hearts. I am the tree that she is. We are all the tree, and the earth. We are the aging marble of blue and green and the sky that contains it. How can we separate that which we are?
My mother is a tree. “I could live in a tree,” she has said countless times. She is the tree in which she lives. And she wears her life now without much bark. She always has, but her bark is so much thinner now. And like Ansel Adam’s Jeffery Pine so curved by wind and weather she still stands. The dark circular rings around her huge green eyes are like the knots on a tree, the type into which you can peer. I do not want to avert my gaze from her eyes. I do not want to withhold my hand from the tender touch of this bark. I want to relax and look deep into those knots and wonder with awe. I want to hear not only to the sound of her voice but the silences that punctuate her speech, that somehow both soothe and scare me. And, like the astronauts so mesmerized when seeing our beautiful earth from space, ask again and again: “Who is this? What is this? Who are we who have weathered much and are still standing?”
I would describe myself as
like a landscape I’ve studied
at length, in detail;
like a word I’m coming to understand;
like a pitcher I pour from at mealtime;
like my mother’s face;
like a ship that carried me
when the waters raged.
I love to travel, most of the time. I love the way everything can feel new and fresh. I like the change in routine and the challenge of maintaining practice, even and especially amidst these changes. Travel can be a truly great thing. This fresh mind, or new mind, can be cultivated wherever we are, but travel helps because it wakes us up. It is a reminder to look again at what we do everyday with eyes that are open and unknowing. And if we are able sustain our practices, and our discipline, even when traveling, then we have an even greater opportunity to see those daily practices with the fresh eyes and mind that tend to come from the shift in perspective that travel brings. I also think I love travel, strangely enough, because it is difficult.
I also find this is true in teaching as well. Nothing is better for one’s teaching than having to share what you love with people you do not know, and in a new place. It can be difficult. It can be scary, even a bit terrifying, but exciting and enlivening as well. And this difficulty itself can serve as a catalyst for growth and new learning. It is the difficulty that can bring the awakening. Even the fear that can accompany difficulty can bring on and awakening. Rumi says “Sometimes, though, it is fear that brings you the presence.”
It is also the “encounter with otherness” as the writer Parker Palmer describes it, that is so good, so refreshing, so eye and mind opening. But it also opens our hearts. If we are always surrounded by what is comfortable, by people we know, and those who think, behave, and perceive in the ways that we do, than we are not challenged, and our ideas and perceptions are not challenged. We lose the opportunity to grow in unexpected and potentially surprising ways. And we lose the opportunity to connect to something deeper than, or deeper within, ourselves. Something that is much more expansive, much more inclusive, and perhaps even a bit mysterious. Even the mysterious is worth trusting.
I have had two very different but seminal teaching experiences in the last several months that illustrate the transformation that comes from trusting in what is difficult.
The first was teaching at an Iyengar studio in Poland in the early spring. I was told that many of the students spoke very little English and so I would have work with a translator. But they all practiced Iyengar yoga, and would be familiar with the Sanskrit names of the poses as well as many aspects of the practice, so there was something familiar. But there was the language/cultural challenge to contend with.
I had chosen playful practice as a theme, and was heartened to find that the word playful (in Polish) was what had inspired many of the participants to attend. Play we must!
But I was still nervous about having a translator because of how verbal and linguistically nuanced Iyengar yoga can be. I knew I would have to observe the following:
- Do clear demonstrations of the poses, actions, and sequences.
- Slow down and simplify the instructions (use fewer words and allow time for translation)
- Provide a context or space for the participants to explore the teachings without being constantly verbally instructed
- Find new and non-verbal ways to communicate (like pictures and inspiring visual imagery)
This context provided an opportunity to observe more carefully and listen more closely to what was being communicated non-verbally from these students. Their eyes, faces and bodies communicated so much. It was evident when they were relaxed, absorbed, joyful, and experiencing freedom. But also visible when they were lost, confused, or inhibited in some way. Of course this non-verbal information is always available to us as teachers and as people, but somehow the language challenge heightened my observation skills, and especially my observation of those qualities mentioned above, not just the execution or alignment of the pose. Their person-hood, and the condition of their heart/mind was as important as the execution of the pose. This experience reaffirmed my belief in trusting what is difficult. And it also reaffirmed my trust in the profound power of play as a means of dealing with difficulty and the fear that often comes with this encounter.
The Polish students told me that the many years of communism may have dampened their playful natures. But adulthood anywhere can do that, and systems and dogmas can do that. This is not unique to former communist countries. We can all easily fall into proscribed or rigid approaches or become overly technical to the point where we lose the power of playfulness and the element of surprise. We can lose our childlike sense of wonder. But we do not have to. Wonder can live right in the center of our heart and at the center of our practice if we make space for it.
So I thought if I can, as a teacher, create a space or container for a certain type of thematic exploration (playfulness) without imposing too much of myself or my ideas, and not have to speak too much, then perhaps some magic can happen, and the students will make space for this aspect of themselves to reveal itself. Playful practice was our subject. And the exploration of the subject itself seemed to uncover the sun inside and it expressed itself on their smiling faces. And the sun (literally) does not shine much in Poland in the winter and early spring, so anything that brings joy to the heart and mind can serve as a type of sunshine.
Laughter also helped us cultivate this playful approach to practice . Laughter is a type of language, and like play, it transcends words. Laughter is a by product of playfulness, but also begets playfulness. The power of humor and laughter in practice and in teaching cannot be underestimated. It is good for the brain and the heart. Humor, like honesty and vulnerability, really brings people together. It bridges worlds, it softens hearts, it connects.
Connection is another great thing. Connection is key. Don’t we all, in some way, want connect to each other and to ourselves, to the subject we are studying, and to the fullness and mystery of life?
This is where my Wanderlust experience comes in. I was invited to teach at Wanderlust Vermont this summer. For those of you who do not know what Wanderlust is, it is series of yoga/music festivals held primarily at ski resorts in the summer off season. All styles and types of yoga and body/mind practices are taught. There are also amazing musical and dance entertainment available for the participants to enjoy as they wish.
I was nervous about teaching there for the follow reasons:
1. Many of the classes would be large and have students of varying levels of experience, many of whom have never done, or even heard of, Iyengar yoga.
2. The classes could be quite large and would most likely lack props and wall space (which can serve as a fantastic prop as well as teacher).
3. I wondered if there would be many people even interested in the type of class where they would be asked to focus fully and pay attention to their bodies and watch the movements of their minds without any background music to set the mood or provide distraction (the answer was yes, there were plenty who were interested).
It happens that I feel very strongly that it is essential that some of us, as teachers of Iyengar Yoga, be willing to reach out and play with, engage with, and enter into, dialogue with people from all types of yoga. This is how new students will be exposed to the many brilliant aspects of BKS Iyengar’s teachings. This is how we honor lineage and tradition by engaging with it more fully, especially as we share it with other beings. And for me, yoga is at its heart, a type of communion. It is the deep communion within oneself, and with other beings, and with the great subject itself. So here was an amazing opportunity to attempt, in whatever small way possible, to do just that.
So I asked myself why do we humans do this? Why do we study together? Why do we gather at festivals to celebrate and share our attention, affection and appreciation for a great and mysterious thing such as yoga, or music, or dance, or any other great subject? The writer and educator Parker Palmer uses the phrase “the grace of great things.” Perhaps we trust the grace that comes from this encounter. Great things grace us. They grace us with their mystery. They grace us by requiring connection.
So when teaching at Wanderlust I gave myself the intention to try and connect with those students, in that context, just as they were. My intention was to do this from my most honest (and vulnerable) self, as best I could at that time. My intention was to share an exploration of this great thing called yoga, and an approach inspired by a great teacher named BKS Iyengar. It was intention to share what had most deeply connected me to these teachings, and to connect to these students through this sharing. But most importantly to provide a space or context for them to experience their own connections, to the subject and to themselves.
Now there were practical matters to contend with, such as the particularly large class I taught on the upper back, neck and shoulders. I had hoped to confine the teaching to the use of only two props, that being a belt and a block, which I thought we would have. As it turned out, just moments before teaching, I found out that the belts would not be available. Ok, I thought at least we have the block…and the wall. Oops! That will not work, because there are too many windows and radiators to use the wall. Ok, I thought…they have a block, they have the floor, they have their bodies…and we have each other!
So we worked through a series of standing and supine poses, used the block in various ways, did some simple partner work, and in then in the last portion of class, went face down on the ground. When the students were face down on the floor, working with their shoulders by being in contact with the earth, a palpable shift occurred in the room. The room became absolutely silent. We were here. We were alone, each in our experience, but together in that solitude. The room felt full of a focused presence that comes from the grace of the great thing called yoga. And the profound simplicity that comes from of being with the earth, ear to the ground, ear to oneself. There was a listening happening. There were other such moments over the course of the four days I spent teaching there. And I am grateful for all the difficulties that made those moments possible.
Grateful for the difficulties, because in almost every one of these classes, I was challenged in some way that stretched my imagination and required me to connect even more deeply to the students present just as they were, and to the space that held us just as it was, and to trust in the power of doing just that. Because the subject itself – that great thing called yoga, is about the communion that comes from being fully in the present moment as it is! Then we can use our imaginations, and use anything and everything in service of making whatever we are teaching potentially accessible and effective in any context and to anyone. But if we are not challenged by circumstance, complacency or dullness, or a lack of presence, can set in.
Teaching in Poland and at Wanderlust, as different as these experiences were from one another, were about traveling into new territories as a teacher, and as a practitioner of yoga. This opportunity is always present anytime every time we practice or teach. But traveling into new communities, or countries, or new teaching contexts, requires that much more of us. It requires honoring, and trusting, the power of the great things called love and respect. The deep love and respect for ourselves, the subject, and each other that is the very heart of practice, and teaching.
“It is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself anyway it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and opposition. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary; for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason to do it.
It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
I read a piece recently in the New York Times written by a doctor working in hospice, who very honestly confronted and articulated her experiences – both practical and emotional – when relating to people who are transitioning. In other words, dying. And yet these people are still living. They are said to be transitioning. The use of the word ‘transitioning,’ and the story she told of both beauty and fear, struck me.
The word’s usage in this context describes a very specific transition, arguably the most challenging of our lives. And sometimes these transitions are described as liminal phases. Somehow the word liminal resonates more deeply in my heart. It is evocative of something more than a transition.
Liminal is defined as “of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process” or “occupying a position at, or on both sides of a boundary or threshold.” It is to me, a beautiful word, a beautiful idea, but it can be terrifying. Rilke writes “let everything happen to you, the beauty and the terror, just keep going, no feeling lasts forever.”
I remember being too scared to visit my grandmother as she lay dying in a hospital bed. I was just a teenager at the time, and finally did visit, but I was terrified. I loved her so much and could not process or comprehend what was happening. Since so much is changing, and changing so rapidly, when you are a teen, adolescence felt like a free fall for me. I would awkwardly tumble in and out of the various rights of passage and seminal experiences.
After I saw my grandmother in the hospital for the last time, I went to see my best friend. We used to hang out sometimes at her father’s furniture store. It was a bizarre small town thing, but they had a trampoline in the back of the store. I remember bouncing up and down on the trampoline that day and crying. The embodied experience of repeatedly falling, again and again, allowed the tears to flow. There was anger and laughter, too. But until that moment, I had not been able to let myself fall into the present and experience the feelings of love and loss flowing in and out of me.
When I spent time with my father as he was dying, it too was a liminal place. But when I gave myself permission to feel fully the beauty and terror of this liminal place, I found myself, with him, on some strange yet familiar plateau. It was extremely quiet, and peaceful and full. It was an expansive liminal place of love. I say liminal because it is as if with in the stillness, I was also falling. And so letting life, love and loss, happen. “Let everything happen to you, the beauty and the terror” says Rilke.
That nothing feels completely certain anymore feels odd but true, or truer than any of the ideas or stories that take me away from the immediacy of these feelings, which as Rilke said, are always changing. But in that liminal place or phase there is a call to stay present – to the beauty and the terror – since no feeling lasts forever, and nothing lasts forever.
My mother is almost 90 and I sense, in myself, a certain uneasiness when we speak sometimes. There is an intimacy, but also a distance. The distance is actual (she is in New Mexico) but on some other level, emotional. But there is also a tenderness. A tender and at times tentative quality, or slightly awkward quality in our conversations. And sometimes we traverse the gap and find ourselves connected in that beautiful, scary, liminal place. It is as if we both know just how delicate, precious, and fleeting life is, liminal, and eternal in that.
I have never walked on a tight-rope (but are fascinated by those who do), never jumped out of an airplane, and have never even been on one of those bridges in the jungles that are made of twine and swing as you traverse them – but I imagine them at times. I imagine looking down at water moving and around at trees swaying and the fluid and ephemeral clouds above. What ground is there in this context except presence? The fierce, yet loving presence that allows us to connect to each other, and to ourselves, to the beauty and the terror.
I like feeling in control. But I also find myself drawn to those circumstances where I literally fall into presence. It is scary. It is beautiful. It feels like love.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
“The Peace of Wild Things” is a lovely poem by Wendell Berry. To me, it so perfectly epitomizes what I love about yoga, teaching, taking a walk – and just being and breathing.
He writes, “For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” The experience of freedom is an aim of yoga. Do you feel in this moment the peace of wild things? Barry writes, “When despair for the world grows in me / and I wake in the night at the least sound / in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,” Do you know this feeling? Dis-ease or dis-quiet.
One of my cats has a tendency to cry when my husband leaves the apartment. Sometimes he doesn’t realize that we are in the other room, and his anxiety is evident in his confused meow. Then his brother jumps down from his perch on the refrigerator and bites the back of his neck in a sustained manner. He holds the scruff of fur on the back of his brother’s neck like a mother cat would when she picks up her kitten. This calms our anxious kitty down within seconds. The peace of wild things.
“I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” Forethought. But what about now? When my cat holds his brother, it is as if he is saying “feel this now.” And apparently studies have shown that a kitten’s blood pressure can drop within seconds of being held in this manner. It is so beautiful to witness this dance of the peace. The peace of wild things, even if they are technically domesticated animals. What are we? Domesticated animals/wild things?
“I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.”
Sometimes at night I listen to the sweet sounds of my cats purring as they sleep, along with the sound of my husband’s snorring. These sounds make me profoundly happy and contented. These boys, who sometimes have trouble resting, are at peace. And I rest in the beauty of this sound, their sounds, the peace of wild things.
“I come into the presence of still water and feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
When I listen closely to the flowers in the park, the luscious pinks, and vivid reds and oranges, the cool inky blues and purples, I hear a vibration. Yes, colors have sound, and they move, and breathe. Everything breathes and vibrates and pulses. Many hearts beating, many organisms breathing, all at once. A cacophony of sound and color that is at the same time peaceful, for it is as it should be. Peaceful and wild.
In yoga we are taught to ask the question, again and again, “who am I?” and “who is the breather?” In practice we can observe that the body breathes itself, the heart beats itself. We might observe, extend, condition or even stop our breath for a time. We can affect the rate and quality of our breath, the rate and force of our heart, our vital energy, our life force. We can watch and affect the flow of our thoughts and observe their stoppage for time. And yet the body will breathe itself, the heart will beat itself and the life force will pulse at a certain frequency – until it doesn’t. But the breath, this breathing, beating wide world of wild things goes on. And the peace is in the watching, the witnessing, the widened view, that takes in the wild things. And the peace that they are.
“For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
May we all.
“What you are seeing is only a drop, one raindrop containing a sample of what remains of the millions of lives lost in these camps.”
These were the words occasionally repeated by our Polish guide during a visit to the former concentration/extermination camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. This was the most difficult but most profound aspect of my recent trip to Poland. After teaching a yoga intensive in Warsaw, I traveled to Krakow and then took a day trip to Auschwitz/Birkenau. My experience teaching in Poland was incredible, and I will return again next summer, but my visit to the camps is what I am choosing to share right now.
Having read about the Holocaust and seen many excellent films depicting the horror of life and death in these camps, nothing quite prepared me for the experience of being there, and seeing and feeling the earth and air of this place. It was very cold late March day when we went, it had been snowing the day before (it snowed pretty much every day of my two weeks in Poland) and was overcast and blustery, especially at Birkenau. Birkenau is the largest of what were the three camps of Auschwitz (usually referred to as “Auschwitz 2″). It is a huge, stark, and exposed plain surrounded by a forest of white Birch trees (hence the name Birkenau) and was the site of the some of the most horrendous living conditions and mass extermination facilities during the war. Since so much is simply incomprehensible and indescribable, I will share only a few verbal and visual images. My traveling companion Jen Roy took these pictures (she took very few pictures at the camps) but captured very well some of the small things that were emblematic of this “raindrop” described by our guide.
It was difficult to see the hair braids of the small girls, and the eye glasses and shoes, hair combs, hair cream, and tooth brushes, cookware and precious valuables by the thousands that were displayed in the museum. These small artifacts were pieces of what was once a part of someones world, “just a drop” in a universe of families, perhaps full of hope of setting up a new life somewhere.
“One can look at the world/through the magnifying glass of amazement/the diminishing glass of doubt/through the fingers through the tears/black blue and rose colored glasses/and through/(…)the thousands of empty glasses/of the Auschwitz Museum”
There were rows upon rows of photos lining the walls of the museum. Many photos of the faces of those young and strong enough to be worked for a few weeks or months before losing their lives. With their heads shaven, and their eyes open, these pictures spoke volumes and were heartbreaking to view. And there are no words capable of describing the photos of the emaciated and mutilated bodies of the children used for medical experimentation, or the emaciated bodies of the few beings that had survived long enough to see these camps liberated.
You who live secure
in your warm houses,
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces
Consider whether this a man
Who labors in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no
Consider this woman,
Without hair or a name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.(…)
And then there was the remnant of a single rose, only the dried up stem and leaves still present, that a visitor must have left on what was once a long row of exposed concrete holes that were part of a mass outhouse. The prisoners were allowed a few seconds a day to use these holes to relieve themselves. Most of the time they were not given any facility for this purpose. Of the many jobs those prisoners strong enough to work were given, the job of cleaning the bottom of the latrine pit was a considered one of the best. It was good job since the outhouse was covered and somewhat protected from the elements. The remnants of that rose so tenderly placed on what was once a toilet was gesture of so much respect, a little flower of dignity placed over a site of intended humiliation.
And another rose recently placed (its bud still intact) in the padlock of a freight car used to lock in and transport people for what must have been hundreds or even thousands miles from their homes and homelands to this stark and desolate place.
The railroad tracks at Auschwitz/Birkenau are a cold hard steel, a distillation of the unimaginable. These tracks made by humans, used by humans represent both a cruelty and a utilitarianism utterly lacking in humanity and empathy. And yet, here in the soil and in the air, and in the roses so tenderly placed, one can feel the presence of so much humanity. In hearts and minds of the survivors, descendants, and fellow human beings who visit this place to bear witness, remember and respect the honor the dignity of all who lived and lost their lives here, is a drop of humanity. Maybe just a raindrop, or a teardrop, or a rose, but still a drop of dignity in this incomprehensible sea of utter depravity.
It was a harsh reminder of the importance of recognizing the innate dignity in everyone, and how essential it is to cultivate empathy and an experience of relationship with our fellow beings as unitive, rather than separative. And to look closely, very closely at all the little and perhaps insidious ways that we might (if only in our minds) denigrate, diminish, or even dehumanize those who are not like us.
Never shall I forget the night
the first night in the camp
Which has turned my life into one long night,
seven times cursed and even times sealed.
Never shall I forget this smoke.
Never shall I forget the little faces of children
whose bodies I saw turned into wreathes of smoke
beneath a silent blue sky.(…)