Compassion

April 12, 2011 § 11 Comments

 

Gus, showing me how it's done at Huntley Meadows.

On the second day of my yoga teacher training last week, Rolf Gates asked, “How many of you had this fantasy that we would be doing a lot of yoga in here and maybe listen to me talk for a while?” I was taking notes when he said this and my head snapped up. Fantasy? What? What did he mean, fantasy? Wasn’t that how it was going to be for real? What was going on here?

Some of my friends have taken yoga teacher trainings. “It’s hard,” they say. “It’s pretty intense.” I thought they meant physically. I thought they meant they sweated a lot. I used to nod my head sympathetically at them, but inside, I couldn’t wait. Eight hours of yoga class? Excellent.

However, our first assignment is not to assist at a local studio or practice yoga for 3 hours a day. Instead we have been asked to read a script for a 90-minute yoga class out loud and tape ourselves on a voice recorder. Then we take our own class. And we should probably do this at least weekly until our next weekend training, which is about 5 weeks away. There was a collective wince that went through the room after we received these instructions. Ouch. Listen to our own voices? Do we have to?

The first time I read the script was a week ago. I had a babysitter but was so self-conscious that she or the kids might hear me practicing, that I drove to the library and read it out loud while sitting in my car. Unfortunately, the batteries in the voice recorder were kind of dead and when I went to take my own class, there was no sound except for a sentence that went something like, “Let’s move into tree pose. Place your right foot on the inside of your left thigh.” I cringed as I heard my own voice. Yikes. It was even worse than I thought.

On Friday night, I went down to the basement playroom with fresh batteries in the recorder and read the script out loud again. I thought I did fine. I didn’t need to listen to it though. I already knew what I needed to work on. This was silly. I wasn’t going to learn anything. So I put off taking my own class until last night. Finally, at 9:15 pm, I went downstairs in a pair of shorts and a tee shirt and stared down at the palm-sized digital recorder. OK, I thought. Fine. You win. My mat and block and strap and yoga pants were two stories above me in my bedroom, but I let them go. I knew if I went to get them I would never return. Instead, I sat down on the floor and pushed Play.

“Hello Everybody,” my voice said. Jesus Christ, I thought. This is horrible. (To get an idea of how much fun this was, call up your voice mail, and listen to your recorded message for the next hour and a half.) I sighed. I pushed back into downward facing dog because the voice on the recorder told me to. Suddenly, I was face to face with my knees, which is new, since I am usually in a pair of yoga pants. Holy crap! When did those wrinkles get there? Seriously?

Three minutes later I wanted to quit for good.It was like a bad meditation session, one that you wanted to end after 30 seconds, and if you managed to sit for 3 minutes, it was a victory. I looked at the voice recorder. I had an hour and 17 minutes left. Let me first start by saying that the script we have to read is in itself, a beautiful yoga class, even when it’s butchered by amateurs. Every muscle of your body gets attention and you finish feeling great, whether you have been doing yoga for one month or for 10 years. I know that it is a gift just to have it in my possession. To be able to take a class like that whenever I want to.

But last night, I did not feel great. My hands were slipping on the carpet. My voice was insanely annoying. I had gone out on a limb during the reading and decided to try to describe how to physically get into a pose, but when I followed my own instructions on the tape I fell over. I dreaded all the time in downward dog because it meant I just had to listen to myself. Stare at those knees. I didn’t want to breathe for 4 more breaths. I wanted arm balances and jump throughs. I wanted headstands and more chatarangas. Physical pain has always been my way out of emotional pain. When I used to run, I was never the most talented person on the starting line. I had hips that didn’t sit in their sockets correctly. My stride was too long. I had no finishing kick. But I subscribed to the Steve Prefontaine theory of competing: Anyone who was going to beat me would have to endure more pain than me. And I could endure a lot. I craved the pain. I knew it wouldn’t lead to salvation, but I thought that maybe someday, I might be redeemed.

I looked back at the voice recorder. 35 minutes to go. There was no redemption here. I felt myself bolting again. I needed some advice. I needed to talk to someone about this teacher training business. Why were they all lit up about this anyway? Why did everyone tell me how goddamned beautiful it all was. As soon as I was finished I was going to email Katrina and find out how she got through hers. She would give me some advice.

Then I remembered what she wrote on her blog, about her friend’s advice to her about her own teacher training which was, “It’s all about the love.” “Remember,” she wrote to me, “it’s all about the love.” I was in downward dog as I thought this and I looked back at my elephant knees. Was this what she meant? I felt the area under my sternum melt a little bit. I thought about how Pema Chodron says that meditation is about making friends with ourselves. I thought about how Sharon Salzberg says that the most beautiful part of meditation is when we notice we aren’t focusing on our breath and so we come back. We return home.

“Raise your right leg, er left leg,” I say on the voice recorder. I shake my head.  I definitely don’t love that I suck at this. I am not digging those knees or the way the reflection on the glass door shows my ribcage popping out. How does one actually go about making friends with oneself? How does one actually begin to love oneself?

After my “class,” I climbed into bed and read Karen Maezen Miller’s blog. As always, she reminded me to sit up straight and to get over myself. She wrote:

“We all have about three minutes when we’re just fascinated by our own emergence. Then our real face shows up, and it’s not so new after all. We stop finding ourselves remarkable, and then we can begin to do good for others.”

Do good for others. Isn’t that what we all want? Aren’t we all appalled by our own voice? Don’t we all feel like this? While I can never recall ever thinking that anyone’s voice was ever repulsive, don’t we all cringe when we hear ourselves on tape? Why does the sound of our own voice unnerve us so much? Why is it that it’s so difficult to like ourselves, to stop feeling ashamed about that time we lobbed a baseball at someone’s head when we were eight?

I have absolutely no idea. But I have an inkling that I need to at least figure out how to make friends with myself or I am never going to survive the next 5 weeks. Because this is where I usually get off. This is where I usually think: “This is NOT what I signed up for. Forget it. I changed my mind. Sayonara suckers.” And I can’t do that now because .. well. I don’t know. I just really, really like yoga. And I really, really like this teacher training.

When I was growing up, my heroes were Joanie Benoit and Mary Decker. Zola Budd and Grete Waitz. I remember an interview with Joan Benoit back in the 80’s. The reporter asked what her strategy was for the marathon she had just finished. Joan was still breathing hard from her race and she shook her head and laughed. “I just told myself to find my place in the pack, find my pace, and get comfortable there.”

Get comfortable. Maybe that was all I had to do for right now. And I could do that, right? Get a little more used to the wrinkly knees, the uncertain voice, my lack of experience, my fear. Get comfortable. Get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.

I have a big metaphorical box where I lock up what I am not comfortable with: that I am a bad listener, that I talk really fast, that I don’t really like other people’s children. The wrinkles go into that box and the number on the scale. The terrible things I said 10 years ago and 10 weeks ago go in there too. I somehow think that if I keep everything locked up,  when my parallel universe finally gets here – you know, the one where you are tan and perfect and always nice – I can just chuck that box into the ocean. But that parallel universe is never going to get here, is it? Maybe it’s time to unlock the box.

The only way I know to get comfortable is to name things. In a race, I used to name what I saw and felt on the course. There’s that big oak right by the one-mile mark. There’s that burning in my lungs. There’s that girl, coming up behind me. Relax your jaw, I used to think. Relax your tongue. It will be over in a few minutes.

Now, I am naming what is in the box. There’s that really mean thing I said to my mother last year. There’s the way I am judging that woman who talks a mile a minute. There’s the way I talk a mile a minute. Breathe, I think now. Just get comfortable. We’re going to be here for a very long time.

Power

April 2, 2011 § 11 Comments

When the sun came out, so did this tree.

I started my yoga teacher training this evening with Rolf Gates. I should be asleep now, resting up for a long day tomorrow. But I can’t. I am too wired but what happened and by what might happen. I am too excited by what is happening right now. “There are moments,” Rolf said, after we set our intentions for the training, “When you will watch your whole life change.” He rang the bell. “This is one of those moments.”

Going into the training I was nervous and excited. I expected to be the oldest person there. I expected 20-somethings in ponytails. I expected that everyone would be more prepared, more flexible, kinder, already living the yamas and niyamas at every single second. What I got was a room full of people. Some older than me and some younger. Some fatter and some thinner. All of us, trying to be more ourselves. All of us, trying so hard to come home.

Rolf had us answer two questions. The first was Who do you want to be? The second was, What do you want the experience to be like? I thought I knew the answers. I thought I wanted to be helpful and kind and more plugged-in to the divine spirit that is so tangible in my yoga class. I thought I was going to the training so that my life would be more like my yoga practice. So that my life could be my yoga practice.

“You have to write for five minutes,” Rolf told us. “No stopping. What happens when you stop is that you miss the most important thing. Yoga is about being honest with ourselves. Satya.

I didn’t need to write for five minutes. I already knew what I wanted to be. But still, because I never want to Do It Wrong, I followed the directions. I wrote for five minutes. But what I wrote wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I thought I was going to write about grace and divinity and peace, but what my hand scribbled down was:  I want to be powerful.

“What?” I thought. “I do not want that.”

Yes you do, a small voice said.

“Well I don’t want to want that. It’s too big. It’s too loaded. And no one will like me if I’m powerful. I like being small. I’m five foot two. I’ve been small all my life. Crap. Crap, crap, crap.”

It’s so easy to be small. It requires no effort at all to disappear into the crowd. And yet, the people I am drawn to are the ones who radiate, who inspire, and who take up space. The blogs I love are those that are most honest, that own experience, and that take a step forward, that say this is who I am. This is my experience in the world. This is what I want.

Power to me is about being the first one to raise a hand, the first one to say hello. Power is about smiling when everyone else is complaining that it’s too cold or too dark. Power is about eating vegetables and getting enough sleep and saying No with a heart full of love because it’s not right and saying Yes because it is right. Power is about being oneself and only oneself and figuring out what that means. And power is about helping, because when you are powerful, you aren’t afraid of losing your power when you teach others how to find theirs.

After we wrote for five minutes, we had to turn to the person next to us – a total stranger! – and talk for five minutes about our intentions while our partner sat in total silence and listened. It was the longest five minutes in my life. It’s amazing how real you can get without small talk. It’s amazing what you can learn from someone when you can sit in silence.

Finally, at the end of the night, all 65 of us did a metta – or loving kindness – meditation and then each of us said our intention out loud to the group. “My name is Pamela,” I said when the microphone came to me. “I live in Alexandria. My intention is to learn to live powerfully so that others can be powerful.”

As soon as the words were out, my heart leapt out of my chest, like in the cartoons. I could almost see it, outside my ribs, pounding. “I said that too loudly,” I thought. “People will think I am some aggressive crazy person. They will think I am on some ego trip. They will think that I am too full of myself. No one here knows I am a really just a Good Catholic Girl at heart.” Apparently, People Will Think is another personal mantra up there with Doing It Wrong.

But the words were already out. The bell already rang. I said what I said, and now, I am just going to wait to find out what happens.

Where Am I?

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