January 28, 2014 § 30 Comments
The number forty is highly significant across all traditional faiths and esoteric philosophies. It symbolizes change – coming through a struggle and emerging on the other side more enlightened because of the experience. – Dr. Habib Sadeghi
Usually, I begin my yoga classes with child’s pose or a simple seated meditation, but really, meditation is too strong of a word. We breathe in. We breathe out. And inevitably, a Marine in the back of the class is trying so hard not to laugh out loud that he is silently shaking. Usually, I have to close my own eyes and press my lips together so that I don’t start laughing myself.
It’s always a bit awkward in the beginning when I’m asking them to come into cat cow pose and then downward facing dog. Some people are looking around and vigilance pulls up the chins of others. No one is breathing and you can feel the tension rising off bodies like steam.
Then I ask them to come into plank pose, and like magic, all the giggling stops. After about ten seconds in plank, the vibrations in the room begin to settle. After thirty seconds, the disparate streams of energy begin to gather. After a minute, the quiet comes down like a curtain falling.
I don’t have them hold plank to prove anything, or even to quiet the laughter. There is something so familiar about that pose for Marines and athletes – something almost comforting about being in a high push-up. And yet there is something else about plank that gets right to the heart of our own vulnerability. Maybe it’s that our pelvis wants to collapse in a way that would showcase our weakness. Maybe it’s that plank pose demands us to soften the space behind our hearts. Or maybe it’s the quiet of the pose itself, the stillness required to hold ourselves straight and stare at a single spot on the floor.
After plank pose, it’s different in the room. I can say inhale and 30 sets of lungs breathe in. I can say exhale and 30 sets of lungs breathe out. I can place my hands on someone’s shoulders and they no longer want to flinch.
It was my birthday this week and I have been thinking an awful lot about vulnerability. 41 is a year that lacks the spunk of the thirties but also the dire nature of that four-oh milestone. 41 is not yet old but definitely no longer young. 41 is a bit like jumping into the shallow end of a freezing cold pool and hopping up and down, your arms over your head. 41 is about being in it but just barely. It’s about stopping by the mirror and knowing that you still look much the same as you did at 20, but undeniably, your skin is thinner and creased. What is left may look the same, but it’s only a veneer of who you used to be, and soon that will be gone too, and the true self – the real face that reveals our own creased and softened souls – will emerge.
41 feels a lot like being in plank pose.
Most of my fortieth year was spent on my back, staring up at the clouds that seemed to be rushing by too quickly. Last winter, I woke up in the cold sweat of panic attacks and during this past summer, I couldn’t sleep. 40 required waking up to the fact that I was living in a way that was not sustainable, that I couldn’t forego rest anymore in the name of getting things done, that I needed to stop saying yes when I meant no, and that I desperately wanted to stop asking for permission. Chocolate and wine were no longer staving off that terrifying feeling of fragility, and the warning hum underneath was becoming so loud I felt a little crazy. Last year, a line from Hamlet wove its way into my days: I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
For 39 years, what I wanted more than anything was to be tough. I would rather be angry later than vulnerable now. It’s easier to be the master of my own fate than to place it into someone else’s palm and close their fingers around those thin shards of glass. I had thought that toughness would scare the fear away. But it turns out that fear stays anyway and makes you want to giggle. It makes you want to yell or run or it wakes you up in the middle of the night and squeezes at your heart.
People talk about vulnerability now as this great thing and I suppose it is. But what they don’t often tell you is that one part of vulnerability is to take a good and honest look at yourself, which feels a bit like sticking your head into the mouth of a monster. Asking the questions is only one part of the equation. It’s sitting still with the answers that’s the kicker. There is the way that I think I am in the world, and then there is the way I actually am.
Sometimes I wonder how on earth I became certified to teach yoga. Of all the experiences in my life, teaching renders me the most vulnerable. It feels like taking off my skin. Before each class I feel like Hanuman, when he ripped open his chest to show Ram his devotion. Ram, Ram, Ram beat his heart.
I am working with Rolf Gates on my 500 hour teacher training, and in our last meeting via Skype I shared some of my challenges with teaching, mostly, that I don’t feel I am up to the task. Rolf laughed after I was finished and said,”Welcome to your first ten years teaching yoga,” which I found oddly comforting. He could have easily been saying, Welcome to your forties. And then he told me that teaching is like pointing at the moon. What’s important, he said, is that our students understand the moon.
The way I see it, there is no way to understand the moon without first standing alone in the dark. There is no way to understand anything unless you pay attention to the way it waxes and wanes, to the way it turns its back to you or slips behind a cloud. The glow and the radiance: it’s only a fraction of what it really is.
About three years ago, I wrote that I felt as if I was on the precipice of something, but couldn’t see far enough down to know what it was. Now, I see that what I was gazing into was the mysterious space that houses our hearts. That my task is to simply crouch in the doorway and pay attention to the storm, to the call of the wind and the violent lashing of the branches. My job at 41 is to sit in the eye of the hurricane, rip open my heart, and listen.
September 15, 2011 § 23 Comments
In my world, I’m standing just inside the door.
In my world, I’m speaking, to the ocean’s roar.
Jackson Browne, “Time the Conqueror.”
The beginning of September has flattened me. Literally. I am lying on the floor in pigeon pose and my yoga teacher, Gopi, is sitting on top of me, shouting at me in her British/Indian accent. “Thassit gurl. Get in thair.” She sticks her elbow into my butt and I see stars. It takes all I have inside me not to cry. That’s how everything has been lately; on top of me, all sharp elbows and painful edges.
I like to write blog posts when I have something figured out, at least to some degree. Right now, I have nothing figured out. Right now, I feel like I am wearing clothes that are both too big and too tight. It’s been weeks since I have written anything at all.
Gopi is talking about change, which is obvious now in the weather and the red tinge on the leaves that hang over our living room window. Yesterday it was ninety-one degrees. Now it is fifty-one. After I picked Oliver up from kindergarten at noon today, I took the boys to the park to ride their bikes in the warm sunshine. This afternoon, at home, we watched the front blow in, cold air on a freight train straight from Canada. I have one east coast winter under my belt after 17 in California, and frankly, I am anxious about doing it again. We had a week of 100 degree temperatures in May and three in June and July. August was hot too. Until now, winter has seemed so far away. I want it to stay away. And I want it to be here already so I can stop worrying about it.
“What in your life,” Gopi asks, ” Is the catalyst for a heart revolution?”
On Labor Day weekend, the week before school started, Scott and I flew back to northern California for a wedding. We saw friends in Marin, San Francisco and on the Sonoma coast. We had pizza in Berkeley with my friend Stephanie and I got to hold her gorgeous 7-week old baby. We drank too much red wine with Scott’s friends from college in a house overlooking the Pacific. We went to my friend Michelle’s wedding and spent the whole time with my friend Loren and her wife Audra. Stephanie and Loren and Michelle were my cross-country and track teammates in college. They know me so well, even now, and I miss them. I miss what it was like to be together every day. I miss that.
The trip back from California to DC was hard – it always is. Something happens to me when I fly eastward over the Mississippi River. I contract. I become the smallest version of myself packed into the tightest bundle. I protect myself from what is inevitably coming. I try to ward off what has already happened.
Last weekend, during my yoga teacher training, something shifted and we all started to get it. Instead of sitting there, feeling confused, I felt close. I felt connected. Rolf talked a bit about our contracted states of fear, aversion, and jealousy. He said that when we move beyond our contracted states, we will realize that we needed each of them in order to arrive at this new, expansive place.
Tonight, Gopi is hell-bent on opening our hips. We do some crazy thing with our legs behind our heads. I am close, but my leg gets stuck somewhere by my pony tail and I can’t get it under. We do some other terrifying move to open our hip flexors where only my left heel and the top of my right foot remain on the floor. Gopi makes us chant three Om’s while we hold that pose. “Whatever you ease into eases up,” she tells us. In that moment, I hate yoga.
For a long time now, I have felt as if I were on the precipice of something: transformation, change, growth. I don’t know. It’s nothing big, nothing earth shaking. Just something new. But I can’t quite get there. It gets stopped, somewhere in my head. I get stuck, just inside the door.
Oliver started school last Thursday, during the rains that didn’t stop. We stayed inside all week, and it felt like winter. Oliver doesn’t like transitions so much. Like me, he tries to protect himself from what has already happened. Since school started, it’s been one meltdown after another. It would be one thing if he walked in the door, threw down his blue race car backpack, and began to wail. Instead, it’s more diffuse. Yesterday, he flung himself on the ground because I reversed the bath/dinner schedule. The day before, he stomped out of the room because I got him a new toothbrush. “I won’t brush my teeth!” he yelled at Scott, “until I have a toothbrush with batteries in it.”
Tonight in class I think about what in my life might be a catalyst for a heart revolution. Maybe it’s my yoga teacher training. Or maybe it’s Oliver’s tantrums. Stay, I tell myself during the heart of them. Breathe. Sometimes I can. And sometimes I can’t.
Next, Gopi has us doing heart opening poses. Our arms are entwined behind our backs and we bow forward into the geometry of devotion. Please, I think as my heart moves towards the floor. Please.
Last Sunday, I set an intention to keep my heart open, to stay in the moment and hold space for Oliver’s transition. What happens is what always happens when I finally act like the grown up and do what I am supposed to do. Oliver stops yelling and starts crying. He asks for a hug with both arms. We bypass anger and move straight to the heart of his anxiety. What also happens is that I become exhausted from all that life being hurled straight at me. When I become a wellspring to my son, I become a drought to myself. I wonder if there is a way to bring the two together, to nourish both of us at the same time.
In our teacher training, Rolf told us to be the thing we loved. What would happen if I could remember the word devotion? What if I could become that?
Later in class, we do Hanumanasana or seated splits with one leg straight out in front. The pose is named after the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman, who devotes his life to the god Rama. When the demon king who presides over Sri Lanka abducts Rama’s wife, Sita, Hanuman and Rama travel from India to Sri Lanka to rescue her. During the battle there, Rama’s brother becomes wounded and to live, he requires an herb that only grows in the Himalayas.
Hanuman so loves Rama that he says he will accomplish this impossible task. With one foot still in Sri Lanka, he stretches himself all the way back to India. He can’t find the herb, so he lifts up the entire mountain and carries it back to Sri Lanka, where Rama’s brother is saved. Hanumanasana embodies Hanuman’s devotion, each leg in a different country, arms high in the air, carrying a mountain.
I can never get into this pose all the way. Mostly I just hover, uncomfortably, suspended a few inches off the ground, my hands on the floor.
On Labor Day, on the way home from the wedding, I bought Gail Caldwell’s book, Let’s Take the Long Way Home in the San Francisco airport. The book is about Caldwell’s experience of losing her best friend – Caroline Knapp, another of my favorite writers – to breast cancer at the age of 42. In the book, Caldwell writes, “I was in the corridor of something far larger than I, and I just had to stand it and stay where I was.”
Tonight, I go into Hanumanasana the way I always do: I squeeze my front thigh and flex my front foot. I walk the toes on the other leg back until they can’t go any further. Tonight I do this until I feel something under my front hamstring. It takes a split second until I realize that what is directly under my leg is the floor, which has miraculously risen up to meet me.
“Yes!” I think to myself. “Yes!” and then I am instantly humbled. I have been practicing yoga consistently since I was pregnant with Oliver. It has taken me more than six years to come into the shape of this pose.
At the park today, watching Oliver ride around like a crazy person on his bike, I found myself wondering how many weeks it would take until he feels more settled at school. Maybe next week. Maybe never.
I keep wondering when I am going to get there: back to California, my leg over my head, the end of winter, the end of tantrums, and of course what I really want, which is to become a more spiritual person. I thought if I did a lot of yoga, it would happen on its own. There is something to that of course, but it’s not that easy. It requires a bit more stretching than that. It takes a long time, sometimes, to get around these big corners. There’s a lot of hanging out, suspended over the ground, feet in two different countries. It might be that I never get there, that this is all there is, right now: waiting and staying and standing it.