April 30, 2011 § 6 Comments
It’s no secret that the yoga teacher training I am doing has been challenging for me. “You’ll really do The Work,” people said when I told them I was starting a yoga teacher training this spring. “It’ll bring up Your Stuff,” someone else said. I narrowed my eyes at these comments and asked for specifics. “Can you give me an example?” I asked. “What do you mean, exactly, by ‘The Work?‘” But the only reply I received was a smile and a shrug. “Have fun,” they said.
Fine, I thought. Great. Bring it on. I would do The Work, whatever that was. I could handle My Stuff, right?
I thought I could. But these days, I just stare at a tiny digital recorder and want to hide under the bed. Our current “homework” for our teacher training is to read a script for a 90-minute yoga class (a wonderful class, by the way) and then listen to the recording and take our own yoga class. Personally, I would rather get my teeth pulled without novocaine.
I thought The Work and My Stuff might be interesting. I thought it would at least be clear. I thought it would come to me all of a piece. I thought it would be the Holy Grail, the directions for How to Get Fixed. Instead, listening to myself on tape for 90 minutes just makes me feel really lousy in a nondescript sort of way. And the “nondescript” is far worse than the “lousy.” So I hate listening to myself on tape. Who doesn’t?
Yet, I was having such a hard time with it that I fell into a hole for a week. I didn’t go to yoga. I stopped meditating. I almost wrote to the assistant for the teacher training and asked for help, but after thinking about it, I wasn’t sure that someone who barely knew me could do much. I had a feeling that this was something I needed to figure out for myself.
Later that weekend, I went for a run in the rain and tried to figure out why listening to myself on a tape recorder terrifies me so much, why it makes me feel like a total loser. I sound weak as I read the script. Uncertain. I mess it up. I talk too quickly. I make mistakes.
Could that be it? That I make mistakes? Could it be that listening to my own voice unearths a giant snarl of imperfection that I have been trying to keep covered up for years? Is it possible that I so hate the idea of failure that I have deluded myself into believing that somewhere out there is the possibility of perfection, bright and shiny as a mala bead? Could it be that I am just disappointed with myself?
As I ran, I thought of all the failures in my life, all the missteps, the embarrassments, the glaring errors. There was that really dumb thing I said to that cute guy on the cross country team in college, that my friends heard and laughed about for months. There was the vet school application to Penn that I somehow “forgot” to send in. Even worse, there were the thousands of unkind things I have said and done. Which I still do, daily. There was the awful job I stayed in for far too long. There was the job I didn’t get because I didn’t prepare for the interview. There was that unplanned pregnancy.
When I got to that last one, I paused. At the time, when I found out I was pregnant, it was awful. I was devastated. It felt like my life was ending. But now? Now, I know that it was the best thing I ever did. When I think of Oliver, I can’t imagine a time before him, a time when he was not yet. He is my failure transformed into beauty. He was my sacred mistake.
What if, I wondered, I thought of my mistakes the same way I thought about my successes? What would happen if I treated all of my mistakes with reverence, with gratitude? What would happen if instead of treating my mistakes as shameful, I treated them each as sacred?
I am not talking about celebrating mistakes – I am far too cynical for that. But even the universe depends on mistakes. Errors are not just a design flaw, they are an inherent part of the design. Without errors in DNA replication, there would be no variation in life. We would all still be single-celled protozoa. Mistakes in DNA are the only source of evolution. They are responsible for violets and giraffes and blond hair. The part I have trouble with is that they are also responsible for cancer and Down Syndrome and MRSA.
I went to a talk by Karen Maezen Miller today, which was pretty great. She talked at one point about the limits that exist only in our mind and how everyday, our children push us past our limits. “Children are the face of God,” she said. She tapped her hand on the floor. “This floor is the face of God. That accident in the parking lot is the face of God. Everything as it is, is the face of God.”
Last week, I took the boys to my parents house for two days. It’s a 4 hour car trip (5 with a stop) and it was just the three of us heading up through the mountains of Pennsylvania. I don’t like the trip very much to say the least. It makes me nervous to know that juice boxes and oranges will probably be demanded as soon as I hit construction or a windy pass in the Poconos. I was so flustered this time that I missed the entrance to the 395 and had to backtrack and turn around in a parking lot.
I stopped the car for a second and took a breath because I was so annoyed at myself for making the trip longer than it already was. And then – Sacred. The word popped into my head and something in my ribcage softened a bit. My shoulders moved away from my ears and tears came to my eyes. My heart peeled open and I came back to myself. A quote popped into my head, something Albert Einstein said: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
Maybe mistakes are like that too. The oak trees and the cancer. The wrong turns and the right ones. The kind thoughts and the angry words. The unplanned pregnancy and the little boy who now brings me wildflowers.
April 24, 2011 § 7 Comments
Usually I read books very quickly. I finished Claire Dederer’s Poser in about 3 days because it was so similar to my own life and I wanted to find out what happened next. Other books, I read slowly because each page is a piece of magic. I want it to last forever. Last year, when I was in the middle of our move from Ventura to Washington, D.C. I read Katrina Kenison’s The Gift of an Ordinary Day. I only allowed myself a few pages a night because I
wanted needed it to keep me afloat during my transition.
I have been reading Dani Shapiro’s Devotion in much the same way. I needed it to last throughout the winter. I am almost finished now and came across the following passage which I have been thinking about for days. In this section of the book, Dani was having lunch with Sylvia Boorstein, the meditation teacher. The two had gotten to be close and were having dinner in New York City near Central Park, which to me, is such a festive place. The two are catching up and talking about an Alice Munro story. Shapiro writes:
The story had touched on a constant, gnawing sadness that was always with me. This sadness wasn’t a huge part of me – I wasn’t remotely depressed – but still, it was like a stone I carried in my pocket. I always knew it was there.
“I think of it as the edge of melancholy,” Sylvia said, “and it’s where I live – but at the same time, I am easily cheered.” Where else was a sensible person to live, but on the edge of sorrow? I pictured myself and Sylvia, on some sort of window ledge, our legs gaily dangling beneath us. Not falling over, but all the while aware that a world of pain simmered below.
I read that and put my hand on my heart. That was it. All along I had thought there was something vaguely wrong with me that my life seemed to have a sort of Charlotte’s Web quality to it, and here is Dani Shapiro, asking me where else am I supposed to live, even as her own feet swing over the tragedy below.
Anyway, because I usually write about what I struggle with, I thought I would write about how I too am easily cheered.
Lately, Oliver has been pretending he is a cat. Sometimes, when he refuses to speak and only meows in a very high pitch, this is annoying. But overall, it is very sweet. Even sweeter when his brother plays with him. Together they are “Kitten,” (Oliver) and Prun-Jun (Gus). I am only guessing on the spelling there. The sweetest is when they are cats you can “ride kittyback” on, and Oliver carries Gus around.
I know, right? I thought I hated it here too. But it turns out that while this city will always have a freight train of aggression driving through, there are some fun things to do. We live 4 minutes from a Metro stop, 15 minutes from the National Zoo, a 20 minute Metro ride into the Smithsonian, and about 16 minutes from DC’s best yoga studio, Flow.
Also, about 20 minutes from our house is a wetlands sanctuary on one of George Mason’s former farms. It’s called Huntley Meadows, and when we went last week, we saw skinks, frogs, turtles, and a heron. Awesome.
I have two friends now (yay!). A lovely mom at my son’s school and I are starting to hang out more and I am looking forward to a summer full of lazy mornings at the park. I also met another mother of boys – Sonya – at one of those ridiculous trail races I did this spring. Sonya introduced me to Huntley Meadows. When her son asked if she could buy him something at the Visitor Center, Sonya shook her head sadly and told him she had no money. “But I bought you this sun,” she said, throwing open her arms. “I bought you these ants!”
While Gus was sitting at the Lego table in our kitchen (where he was pretending that a bunch of orange safety ear plugs he found in a closet were donuts), he said, “Mommy, why did the sign truck walk away?”
I wasn’t sure what he meant. “Why did the sign truck walk away?” I asked, trying to figure out what he was talking about.
“Because someone put shoes on him,” Gus said.
“Gus!” I said, putting down the carrots I was cutting up. “Did you just tell me a joke?”
Gus turned back to his ear plugs. “I making more donuts now.”
That night at dinner, I told Scott about Gus’ joke. “Oliver?” I asked, “Did you tell Gus that joke?”
Oliver shook his head. “No.”
“I wonder where he heard it,” I said.
“Well, I told that joke to Juan Jose,” Oliver said. “And I think Gus was listening.”
“When was that?” Juan Jose is in Oliver’s class at school and Gus doesn’t see him much.
“On that playdate,” Oliver said. “When we were all in the backseat of Daddy’s car.”
“That was over a month ago,” I told Scott, who was busy trying to keep his chicken safe from Gus, who kept stealing it.
“Where did you hear the joke?” Scott asked Oliver.
“I made it up,” he said.
“I made donuts,” Gus said.
“I’ll tell you a joke,” Oliver said. “Why did the log walk away?”
“I don’t know,” Scott said.
“Because someone put it on a logging truck.”
Although yoga is about renouncing attachments, some of my attachments provide me with great comfort. A few of these include: Republic of Tea Earl Grey tea, books (currently Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life), my new cookbook (Gwyneth Paltrow’s My Father’s Daughter, in the photo), our garden, books on iPOD, watching the Biggest Loser, a clean car, a clean house, Sunday New York Times, springtime, Ugg flip flops, and of course, my yoga mat.
April 12, 2011 § 11 Comments
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.
April 8, 2011 § 10 Comments
This afternoon, after Gus was down for a nap, Oliver tiptoed into my room. “Mommy,” he whispered. “Do you want to play Mr. Dealership now?”
“Of course!” I whispered back and he grinned and hurried down the stairs to the playroom. Mr. Dealership has become our new game and often this time is the highlight of my day. I don’t have much time alone with Oliver, so Gus’ naptime is kind of like a standing date for us. Today I went down to the corner of the playroom, where my “dealership” is. I sat with the basket of clean laundry that needed to be folded while Oliver loaded up his car carrier with Matchboxes and drove them over to me. “Mr. Dealer Manager?” he asked me, “Do you need some monster trucks?”
“Absolutely,” I said in my best used car salesman voice. “And some car parts too.”
The “car parts” were just Gus’ alphabet blocks that also got loaded up on the truck. Oliver used a Lego front loader truck to hand them off to me. “Here’s a C box,” he said. “That’s the carburetors. And here’s an M box. Wait, it’s a W box. Hey, it’s an M and a W. Cool.”
That’s what I love about kids. They are so open. Their wonderful beginner’s minds are so full of awe. To me, an M is never a W. It is only an M. A man is never a woman. A McDonalds is never a Wendy’s. A malasana is never a warrior II. When I start something new, I don’t think of it as cool. I think of it as hard. I think of it as strange and difficult. My own beginner’s mind forgets that it’s a beginner’s mind. It thinks it should know everything already, even as all around me, the world is made new again.
Obviously, spring is the season to flower and take flight. For me anyway, this spring is about taking risks as surely as this winter was about embracing the darkness. Taking risks. Letting go. Oh, there is so much I can let go of: the stories I tell myself, my tight grip on every minute of my day, my fear.
Today, Oliver reminded me of another spring 20 years ago when I was a sophomore in college. That year I qualified for a spot on the US Cross Country team as a junior, which meant I could run in the IAAF World Cross Country Championships held in Boston that year (1992). A few days before the race, there was a massive snowstorm that buried Franklin Park. The weather stayed in the 20’s and the wind came through the city like a freight train. Still, we showed up to run the course the day before the race, all of us bundled into our US-team GoreTex, sick of the snow and wishing that the race was held in another country, like say, Morocco or Mexico. As we trudged up Bear Cage Hill, we heard a lot of yelling and laughing. Whooping. We came around the corner and there was the Kenyan team, dancing around in their green and red sweats. They bent down to the ground and then pointed at the sky. They laughed and yelled things at each other in Swahili. Runners in general are a pretty neurotic bunch and I wondered if maybe they were doing some good luck ritual.
“Hey,” one of the US runners yelled to the Kenyan team’s American translator. The translator waved back at us. He too was grinning. “Hey,” the US runner yelled again, “What’s going on?” The translator loped over to us, and the US runner asked, “What are they saying?”
The translator looked over at the Kenyan team and then turned back to us and shrugged, his palms up. “They’re not saying anything,” he told us, smiling. “They don’t have a word for snow.”
We all stood, silenced by that. The Kenyan team was still jumping around and laughing, pointing at the snow and touching it, as if it were alive. Sometimes they grabbed each other’s hands and put snow in their teammates’ palms and watched it melt. We watched for a while, until finally, one of the US guys lowered his head and started to run again, up that hill. We all followed, quiet for a while, humbled and in awe. “No word for snow?” someone asked after a few minutes. “Did you see how happy they were?” someone else asked. I felt such a love for those Kenyans then, dancing around with their big joyful hearts.
The next day, on the starting line of the race, it started to sleet. I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt under my singlet and my bare legs were slathered with olive oil to stay as warm as possible. Before the race, my college coach screwed 3/4 inch long spikes into my racing flats so I wouldn’t slip on the ice. Next to me was the Kenyan women’s team. They were shivering in their nylon shorts and singlets and their toes bounced up and down on the white snow. They were running barefoot. For most of the race, I followed the bloody footprints they left behind.
Arguably, Kenyans are some of the most efficient distance runners in the world. To them, running is not just sport, it’s culture. It’s transportation. They are masters at running fast for a long, long time, yes, but they are not masters of snow. I would have bet that day in 1992, in Franklin Park in a snowstorm, the Kenyans wouldn’t have run their best. And that would have been OK because after all, they don’t even have a word for snow. And those words are so important, right? Don’t we need the label to define our experience? Don’t we need the story to explain ourselves?
Or maybe we don’t. That day in Franklin Park, the Kenyan teams won every race.
Tonight, as Oliver as going to bed, he looked up at the glow in the dark stars on his ceiling and asked, “Do you know what the brightest star in the night sky is?”
“No,” I said, curious to see what he was going to tell me. “What is it?”
“It’s the nut star,” he said solemnly. “If you get lost, you can follow it.”
Nut star? “Do you mean the North Star?” I almost asked, but I bit my lip. Who cares, I thought, stopping myself. Nut or North. M or W. Scared or brave. Beginner or master. Better than or Worse than. Who cares. I think of the way the Kenyans opened up their hands to that crazy foreign snow. I think about how my son just wants to soak in experience. We’re all just out here dancing in the snow. We’re all running uphill on our bloody feet. We’re all just trying to find our own nut star.
April 6, 2011 § 4 Comments
The past few days since I finished the first weekend of my yoga teacher training have been interesting. By interesting, I do not mean fun. I have been watching my mind a lot as it vacillates between “I am so excited that I am studying yoga!!!” and “On what planet did I ever think I could be studying yoga???” I am watching these thoughts, but that doesn’t mean I am not feeling the emotions. In a way, it’s like watching yourself as you try to stop your car from hydroplaning. You see the car skidding. You watch the road move back and forth. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t thinking of how bad it will hurt if you don’t straighten out.
I felt so great when I arrived at the yoga teacher training on Friday night. I had been preparing for months by running more, going to yoga as often as I could, trying to clean up my diet, and most of all, by trying to live by the spiritual precepts of yoga, those wonderful yamas and niyamas that dictate right living and right action. As we all sat and eagerly listened to Rolf Gates last Friday and waited to do some yoga with The Man, I felt as if I belonged there, like I was on my path in a way that transcended just the ego. I felt like I did in college when I trained hard for a big cross-country meet, stayed injury-free, and showed up on race day ready to play. Yes, every fiber of my body was saying. I want to be here.
On the second day, Rolf handed us a 90-minute yoga class narrative and told us to find a partner. He told us we were going to teach our first yoga class by reading the narrative out loud to each other. You’re kidding me, I thought. Wasn’t he supposed to teach us? My partner and I gulped and then rolled out our mats. I was to “teach” first so I looked at the narrative for about 30 seconds before we were told to begin. After a few minutes of stumbling over the 10-point type while my partner gamely tried to follow my instructions, an assistant came over to me. “Try to remember that you are teaching yoga to an actual human being,” she said to me. “Don’t just read the words without stopping. Think of it as a kirtan, a call and response.” Someday, I am sure I will look back and say that was great teaching advice. But at that moment, my first thought was, “Screw you, lady. You try to read this tiny little print cold.” What came out of my mouth was, “Thank you.” What my brain said to myself next was, “Oh. Kay. Obviously, you are in way over your head.”
The night before, when we had to make an intention at the start of our training, I said out loud to 70 people that I wanted to learn to live powerfully so that others could be powerful. Clearly, I was about as powerful as a substitute teacher in a roomful of seventh graders. The next 36 hours were a seesaw between I’m Doing Great and I Totally Suck. After my first “class,” it was all I could do to keep myself from running out the door. After a great lecture from Rolf, I was convinced I was right where I needed to be. After saying something inane to the woman next to me, I told myself I was too old to start something new.
The next few days after the training ended have been equally harsh. I am excited about starting something new at the same time I keep trying to fight feelings of inadequacy. Yesterday, for the first time in a long while, I yelled at my boys (for fighting) and immediately after, felt like a total fraud. I ate meat today, which I haven’t done in months. I went to a parent meeting at my son’s Waldorf school on Monday and fought the urge to stand on a chair and scream. Holy crap, I keep thinking. I’m losing my mind.
At the training, Rolf talked about how in our lives, we have areas of confusion and areas of clarity. “But they’re all mixed up in there,” he said. “It’s not like we have one thing figured out and we move onto the next. It’s all jumbled up.” It’s like that a lot these days as I close in on the end of my thirties. Just ten years ago, I was young by anyone’s standards. I was single and childless and just beginning to make my way. Now, just a decade later, I am approaching Middle Age. Sometimes I think that women have a shelf-life of about ten years. Before 25 we are “too young” and after 35 we are “too old.” Before 25 I wasn’t taken seriously in my career, but at 35, I was considered to be of Advanced Maternal Age. Before 25, I wasn’t mature enough to understand yoga. Now, at 38, I feel too old to become a yoga teacher.
I realize that I am not old, of course, but at the same time, I am no longer standing on that verdant plain of youth. The ground under my feet is less lush, more rocky. There are weeds cropping up between my toes. I think of Middle Age as the last undiscovered country. We have no rituals for it, no ceremonies. Just as soon as we begin to come into ourselves, Middle Age creeps up behind us and puts its hands over our eyes, making us gasp. There is really no way to prepare for its arrival. As women, especially, we are dealing with our looks fading, like the dropping of our petals in a world that values flowers, and we need to steady ourselves at our roots. Perhaps this is why so many of us turn to spiritual practices to guide us back home to ourselves.
How odd then, that my own spiritual practice was causing me so much suffering, such dissonance.
Tonight, during yoga class, we had a new teacher. Usually, I hate new teachers. I don’t want to be a guinea pig, I want a good yoga class. I want what I’m used to, not what is new. But this teacher tonight was excellent. She was young but calm. Her class was challenging but familiar. She stretched us out and made us sweat. I liked her music. Before the start of class, she told us to set an intention. I wanted to roll my eyes. I’ve pretty much had it with intentions by now. Then I sighed and set an intention to drop my current feelings of inadequacy.
On the mat next to me was a girl with a zillion yoga bracelets bright with Om symbols and mala beads. I watched as she practically strutted to her mat and extended herself flat over her legs in a forward bend. “Oh, jeez,” I thought to myself, uncharitably, “One of those girls.” Instantly, my inner competitor pricked up her ears. I’m better than, worse than. Better than, worse than. Oh who the hell cares, I finally thought. I started focusing on my own mat, on my own sore back, on my own 75 minute practice. “And now,” begins the first yoga sutra, “for the practice of Yoga.”
During savasana, a song was playing that started with the words, “I looked in the mirror and wanted to be somebody else.” The chorus sounded something like, “Open wide the livery gates.” I am sure this is not what the words actually were, but I felt the gates of my own heart bang open. I thought of everyone else on the planet who is now beginning something new. I thought of all of us women in the middle of our lives, trying to balance on that unstable log suspended over the abyss. I thought of the new moon that began on Sunday, dark then, and now a tiny sliver of light. I remembered that just because the girl next to me has a beautiful yoga practice doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t. I remembered the lyrics to the Leonard Cohen song, the one that surely does exist: “Everything has a crack in it. That’s how the light gets in.”
April 2, 2011 § 11 Comments
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.