January 23, 2012 § 26 Comments

Watching the Snow

My yoga studio has a program twice a year called “Commit To It” in which you practice yoga and meditation for 40 days. The studio is a Baptiste-style power yoga studio and I am sure this program is inspired by Baron Baptiste, who claims that doing 40 days of yoga will transform your life. I am dubious of claims like this, probably because I don’t really like commitment very much. But early in December it seemed like everywhere I looked, people were doing “Challenges.” Even a book I was reading – Sacred Contracts, by Caroline Myss – had a section on how 40 days is the time necessary to manifest an intention.

I don’t really understand any of this. But because I am so crappy at commitment, I thought I would try out a 40 day yoga challenge of my own just to see what would happen. It was simple. From December 2 until January 9, I would do yoga. And since I really like yoga, I figured it wouldn’t be terribly difficult. Most of it, in fact, was quite easy. Leaving for yoga at 7 pm – when my kitchen counter is stacked with dirty dishes and the bath is filling and my kids are pretty much running on fumes – is not a difficult thing at all. Most days, I bolted, a smoothie in hand, my yoga mat riding shotgun as I peeled out of the driveway. Even when I was going to power yoga, which is new for me and pretty much kicks my ass every time, I was happy to flee, to run away from the messiest part of my day and allow my husband to do the dirty work.

But I had other days as well. There was the morning I woke at 5 am to do Rolf Gate’s video and was so stiff I could barely move. Halfway through, I saw my reflection in the windows against the pre-dawn sky, and I looked so horrible – so un-yogalike- that I burst into tears and went back to bed. Another afternoon, I was practicing at home while the boys had some quiet time, and I heard them arguing between their rooms. “BOYS!” I yelled up the stairs, “NO FIGHTING!!” I looked down for a moment, at my hands in prayer position over my heart, and I sighed, chagrined.

Ironically, the most difficult part of my 40 days was after my trip to Kripalu for New Year’s. As is always the case, I brought myself to Kripalu too, which was unfortunate. I balked at sharing a bathroom with twenty other people. I wanted to turn the heat down in the room but I couldn’t find the thermostat. I wanted a cup of coffee but had to wait in line behind a woman who decided that no one could move until she finished cutting up her apple. There was something so human about my New Year’s Eve weekend there, so bare and raw, that I have been feeling a bit unraveled ever since.

What most astounded me about Kripalu was the sense of  camaraderie, maybe even equality. You might find yourself in the dining room scooping slices of lemon caper tempeh next to your teacher. You may see your classmates coming out of the shower. You might take a walk and find someone sitting on a bench, crying. For me, there was such a powerful sense  that not a single one of us is better than another. At first, I was ecstatic and comforted by this idea. And then, I became depressed. If there wasn’t a perfect person out there, then who was going to save me?

A few days after I returned from Kripalu, Colin, one of my yoga teachers said. “Yoga is a process of subtraction. It is not a process of addition.”

I finished my 40 day challenge, but I pretty much staggered over the line. On Day 41, I didn’t go to yoga. Instead, I poured a glass of wine and was looking forward to eating a dinner that wasn’t a liquid. And then: “Mommy?” Oliver called from the top of the stairs, “I had a big leak in the bathroom and I can’t clean it up.”

I put down the wine and picked up the paper towels and the Mrs. Myers. “Mommy?” Oliver called again. “Gus has a stinky diaper and he won’t get out of my room.”

Afterwards, I remembered that earlier in the day, when Oliver had a friend over, I reached into the pantry-slash-broom-closet to grab a bag of pretzels for their snack and knocked a bottle of maple syrup onto the heavy mixer below. That evening, as I reluctantly opened the closet door and stared at the broken glass and syrup that lay before me, it hit me that nothing had changed. Nothing had been transformed. 40 days of yoga and I was still incredibly annoyed at the fact that some days, my biggest work is to clean up messes, to wipe noses and bums and clean pee off the floor. Fuck transformation, I thought. Fuck yoga. All those poses, all that sweat, all that holding reverse warrior for ten breaths while my thigh muscles tried not to explode.

As I scrubbed the mess in the broom closet, I realized how terrified I am of subtraction. I thought with embarrassment of how confidently I wrote about standing in my own emptiness, about creating a clean well-lighted place for myself. It was so easy to say those things in early December, before winter set in. It was so easy to say I would be as empty as the trees when it was still autumn, when the ground wasn’t covered in snow and ice and sleet. It’s easy to be confident before the storm hits and the power is lost. You think you’ll be so eighteen hundreds with your candles, but then the lights go out and you crack your shin on the coffee table.

The other night in yoga, Patty, the owner of the studio had us do one-legged planks and chaturangas (push-ups) for the first twelve minutes of class. A thought went through my head that I was going to die and then another that there was more than an hour to go. I was already shaking and in the 98 degree heat, rivers of sweat dripped from my forehead. From my position just over the floor, I saw Patty’s bare feet stop my me. No, I thought, Please God no,  just before she rapped on my back, right behind my heart.

“Soften,” she commanded and I tensed up. “No,” she said firmly, “Soften. Right here.” The room was full, all 62 spaces holding a person on a mat. “Look,” Patty said, “Everyone around you is softening because they want it so badly for you.” I felt myself lighten. We had all paid to be here, in plank pose for what seemed like a million years, because each of us wanted to be stripped down, melted through the heat. We wanted the sculpture inside the stone and this is how we were going to find it.

There is something about subtraction that feels like losing. There is something about not wanting that feels like not having. There is something about letting go that feels a little too much like giving in. There is something about taking everything away that feels a lot like staring at a closet full of broken glass.

“Go,” Patty says after she asks for a second Eagle Pose. “You can write your story about the pose or you can just do the pose.”

“Fold,” Colin says as we move into Parsvottanasana and for some reason, I lose my balance even though both feet are on the floor. I see his bare feet next to me and again, I think No, go away. And then I feel his hands on my hips, steadying me, his palm on my back, right behind my heart.

Before my 40-day yoga challenge, I thought that yoga was going to fix me. Now instead of having that hope, I have my practice, which is kind of the opposite of hope. I have no idea what I learned during the 40 days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

I am guessing it’s somewhere between Go and Fold.


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§ 26 Responses to Subtraction

  • Smiling, giggling and crying all at once. You just described my weekend. I don’t know how you did 40 days! Hari Om warrior 🙂

  • Alana says:

    Somewhere between Go and Fold sounds like an incredibly human place to be.

  • I hear you, Pamela—and i know the shitty diaper and the broken glass and I know you soften for me and I for you, and we for all of us.

    I softened for Jack Kornfield when he talked about getting a tough diagnosis and having a panic attack, when he suddenly seemed so much like me and not some crunchy, floaty, perfect “other.”

    My friend, and former yoga teacher (but I guess we’re all teaching and learning from each other as we go) said that yoga is like water on stone, so yes it subtracts, and slowly at that, but with a sort of erosive force that leaves us so raw and real that we soften and connect perhaps out of sheer desperate human compassion.

    And then shivasana, or wine, or sleep… and as for more words, I will subtract them and end at =

  • Wolf Pascoe says:

    I like the idea of practicing without hope.

    They who know the truth are not equal to those who love it, and they who love it are not equal to those who practice it. — Confucius

  • Lindsey says:

    Oh, this is so resonant. I had the same reaction to Kripalu – people are just so equal there, we are all so human. And yes, it does leave us a little raw. As does your writing, by the way. It reconnects me to all the things that are messy and unresolved inside of me, and reminds me of all the ways I want to be better, truer, stronger, freer. xoxo

  • I can only second Lindsey here. Yesterday my mom watched me drag myself to my yoga mat at the end of the day, and afterward (as I was pouring myself a glass of wine!), she said, ‘Tell me, do you actually LIKE doing yoga, or do you just make yourself do it? It looks like you’re wearing a hair shirt sometimes.’ That was me yesterday, Hairshirt Yoga. I can’t quite believe how beautifully you evoke here why we practice even when it’s hard. I will read this essay many more times. Thank you!

  • Here’s the thing. I don’t believe you are broken. Cracked, maybe, as we all are… ( ;

    Leonard Cohen said it best…

    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.

    I see so much light in you, in yoga, in us all.

    XOXO and thank you for this. I’ll be noodling it for a while…

  • I have tried both yoga and meditation and failed miserably at both. I could never quiet my mind and always felt completely self-conscious that I wasn’t doing it “right.”

    I think my obsession with doing things “right” and constantly worrying that I’m failing is why I’m always feeling partly batshit crazy. Did that last sentence even make any sense?

    Anyways, as someone who shares your struggle to make sense of it all (in the midst of realities like broken glass and waterfalls of syrup), all I can really say is that reading this felt like home.

  • I only recently discovered your blog. I think you are articulate and brilliant. Thank you for living out loud.

  • As always, Pamela, so beautiful, so raw, open and honest. Amazing and inspiring! Thank you!

  • I lost my job just before Christmas — two days before, in fact — and the subtraction made me tighten like nobody’s business.

    But when I got home, addition kicked in and I remembered what it was like to be able to be the mother and wife I want to be, without all that stress and fear in the way. I softened.

    Opposite from your story, but the same. You will find your way. We’ll be here to help you clean up the messes.

  • Pamela, your posts are so magnificent that they leave me full of words and tongue tied all at the same time. I know just what you mean here – the hushing of kids with hands in prayer pose might just be the story of my life as a mother – but, as ever, you say it in a way so transcendent and so powerful you make the reality into poetry. xo

  • Claudia says:

    Just fabulous – so honest and raw and open to absolutely everything. Thank you so much for sharing this. I’m wondering, is it possible that somewhere between GO and FOLD lies the other instruction you mentioned, SOFTEN? Soften is one of my favorite instructions of all! (And by the way, I never liked the bathrooms at Kripalu, either…)

  • Kate says:

    If only I could take my tangle of thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, disappointments, all those things of everyday life, and get them out coherently in writing like that…it’s brilliant. You’re an inspiration!

  • Ari says:

    I think you learned a lot from your 40 days of yoga. This post is one of the proof.
    Your writing is so honest. I will be reading it again and again.
    Here is a quote I liked a lot. It’s from

    One does not become enlightened
    by imagining figures of light,
    but by making the darkness conscious.

  • Stephanie says:

    Hi Pam,

    I was just about to complain that you hadn’t given us a blog post in a while. This one has been my favorite so far and was definitely worth the wait! I really liked the picture that you chose to go with this post. It seems very fitting because of your boys’ intense focus on the spare scene outside.

    It reminded me of this article ( on babies’ brains. They overbuild and then winnow down. Subtracting (or simplifying, or triage) allows us to jettison the less important things in order to give us more time and brain power to spend on the important ones. But getting there is hard, isn’t it! I really liked your dissection of why it can be so tricky.


  • This:

    There is something about subtraction that feels like losing. There is something about not wanting that feels like not having. There is something about letting go that feels a little too much like giving in. There is something about taking everything away that feels a lot like staring at a closet full of broken glass.

    was fantastic.
    Thank you.

  • mb says:

    pamela, high five on the fuck yoga! comment! had me giggling. i had a yoga class like that last night. damn that body movement and how it makes all the emotional junk dislodge itself and come out. the vulnerability of being seen so deeply through the eyes of our teachers. ouch. hurts so good. can’t wait to go again. sigh.

    you are a beauty. i love the way you see, the way you think, the way you write. i love that line about feeling eighteen hundreds and then cracking your shin on the coffee table. also love caroline myss and will have to check that book out (i loved anatomy of the spirit). always love reading thoughts of a kindred spirit.

  • I saw on my google reader last week that you had a new post. I clicked here right away. I was actually in a really good place, I realized, as I read the first paragraph. So, do you know what I did? I stopped reading. It was so hard. Sort of like starting to pee and then stopping.

    But, something told me to hold, to wait, to cherish, and RATION your writing.

    I am actually still in a good place but decided I had waited long enough. You are wonderful, beautiful, funny, insightful, real, and raw.

    I love to laugh at your real life descriptions. And since I am fairly new at this online friend thing, I consider you one of them….. if you were a real life friend, I would have to give you shit about not cleaning up the syrup mess when it happened. How funny is it that you just shut the door? That is very scarlett o’hara of you….. “I’ll worry about that tomorrow.” This is what I keep laughing at. It is the perfect metaphor for dealing with our junk. Yes, you can push it aside, but it will be there waiting for you.

  • Betsy Marro says:

    Read this line in an essay from the August issue of The Sun Magazine, called, “My Anti-Zen-Zen” by a man named Chris Dombrowski. He tells of the time he dried himself after a shower only to discover that his three-year-old daughter had used it to wipe herself after using the toilet. She had returned the towel to the rung with every expectation that she had done exactly the right thing. “Does such a demeaning experience bring one closer to sainthood?” Dombrowski asks. He then goes on to quote Ikkyu who wiped his dying teacher’s ass with his hands instead of bamboo. Dombrowski notes that this…”might strike one as a bit irreverent but he is simply stating the rules of engagement, the terms of true endearment.”

    Seems to me that this essay and the broken glass it contains expresses beautifully the commitment of someone who is engaging with all of life, including the struggle inherent in it — to accept or try to resist. You have been baptized over and over again and I love that you keep going back to the river for more even when you are not certain why or if you want to.

    I would send you a link to the essay I mentioned but it is not available electronically. You may have seen it. If not, keep an eye out for a hard copy or connect with him on Facebook. It’s good.

  • Betsy Marro says:

    Re my previous post: When I refer to “this essay” in the second paragraph, I am referring to yours, “Subtraction,” not the Dombrowski piece.

  • Denise says:

    Oh holy hell, woman. Your spectacular insight and honesty leave my chest resonating with commiseration. My quest to hold that which is *not* perfect is so messy, so hard. I love that you leave us, in this post, where you are. Right in the middle of it all. xoxo

  • I was on a rollercoaster after just a 10-day challenge and honestly think the stress of it might have canceled out some of the beauty and benefit. That was six months ago and it preceded a real decline in my health. Now I’d be happy just to feel well enough to do the yoga that I know would open up other doors if I just could take it gently instead of as a personal challenge. I want bliss for you but am also admittedly glad to hear a human take on this experiment! I’m sure someday it will all be clear.

  • […] to yoga one night, when I was particularly exhausted, thinking it would help, even though I know that’s not the point. I usually love Bakasana (crow pose), but that night, during the jump-back, I fell flat on my face. […]

  • altaredspaces says:

    “I am dubious of claims like this, probably because I don’t really like commitment very much.” Bless you for saying this. It is the reason “challenges” aren’t for me.

    The truth? Everything I resist is an invitation. I’m folding into your go-energy. Because it is all a practice. A practice. So I will practice my dance with commitment.

  • […] I have written before about cleanses, about how, for me,  it’s never about what I am giving up but what I’ve already lost. It’s about rolling up my sleeves and finally looking at the original wound, at the ways I was torn apart at the seams and the clumsy methods I used to patch myself together: an extra glass of wine, a pot of coffee at 3 pm, those five chocolate chips eaten with my eyes closed, standing in a corner of the kitchen. A cleanse for me is less about what I’m eating and more about removing the tight and messy stitches. It’s about looking into the open gash, the jagged scar, the emptiness in my heart that has nothing to do with the hunger in my belly. […]

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