Pratyahara

April 6, 2012 § 14 Comments

Playdate Tree Pose

“Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself.” – Bhagavad Gita

“Where can you run to escape from yourself?
Where you gonna go?
Where you gonna go?
Salvation is here.” – Switchfoot

A few weeks ago, on a cold, rainy, Saturday, I was cleaning the bathrooms and washing our wood floors. Much has been written lately about the virtues of cleaning, but I am not convinced that these aren’t written by people with maids. By the time I was halfway through I was cranky, and I stopped in front of the upstairs window that looks out into our steep backyard to see if it was still raining. I watched the drizzle for a minute and was about to pick up the paper towels again but noticed two bright blue jays perched on a bare branch below. It’s not that blue jays are rare, exactly, but still, I don’t see them very often, especially not two, their wings too bright for this day, their bodies too fat for the thin branch they were bobbing on. As I stood, I saw a third jay perched high up in the sapling, and then, while I was still marveling at my luck, another one landed, its square wings folding under him. Despite the day and the chore and the remaining bathroom, I felt delight flutter in my throat. It felt like more than I was allowed to have.

Winter always drives me a little bit crazy. There is something about the gray and the cold and the onerous task of putting on coats and scarves that makes me feel suffocated and a bit desperate at the same time. By the time the forsythias bloom, their brightness isn’t even a consolation. I want to hurry them along. I want to usher in the daffodils and the cherry blossoms and then the tulips. I want to bypass spring altogether and get to the fat, fleshy leaves of summer. If I had a mantra, it would be hurry up. It would be get here already.

I signed up for a cleanse a few weeks ago. At the time, I signed up just to feel better. I am a pretty sensitive person, but then I go and forget this. I drink too many mugs of coffee and glasses of wine because it seems like this is what you do when you’re an adult. It’s comforting to hold something in your hand like a talisman. Some mornings, I carry my coffee from room to room like a sword. “En garde,” I want to say to the tedious tasks of brushing two foamy mouths, getting two squirming boys into coats, listening to the gossip in the school parking lot.

For the first few days, I was terrified of The Cleanse. What would happen when I took away the coffee and the sugar and the alcohol? And more importantly, what if I didn’t like what remained? Because really, it’s not about the caffeine or the chocolate, and that’s why cleanses can be such a bitch. It’s never about what you’re giving up, but about what you’ve already lost.

For over a month now, I have been reading Maya Stein’s luminous poem, “you will know (for T)”. The line: “Listen. The birds will teach you everything you need to know about flight,” has been reverberating inside my head and heart. I have been trying to fly through the drizzle with my own winter body. I have been trying to soar but something keeps pulling me back. I went 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. In Garudasana (eagle pose), I felt dizzy and nauseous, and by the time we got to Vrksasana (tree pose) I gave up completely. I bent down into Balasana (child’s pose) and felt my racing heart beat against my mat. It occurred to me then that maybe the problem wasn’t that I didn’t know how to fly, but that I hadn’t yet learned how to land.

After a 3-day headache and bone-crushing exhaustion, what I discovered was that being on a cleanse was easier than my normal life. There was something about a weekly call and a payment sent, a secret Facebook group and a recipe for kitchari that gave me license to take care of myself, to take an extra five minutes to apply Ayurvedic oil and make lemon tea. During the first week, Laura sent us an email about Pratyahara, which is one of the limbs on the eight-limbed yogic path. Pratyahara literally means “to turn inward.” In her email, Laura wrote: “Pratyhara is an invitation to drop into your heart, to come home to yourself.”

I have been spending so much time trying to soar that I have forgotten to come back to earth. So much of my life has been spent trying to prove myself, trying to earn a seat at the table. I waste so much energy trying to be twice as good in order to be considered as good as. I have been so busy plumbing the depths of what is expected of me that I have forgotten to listen to what I already know to be true.

In my yoga teacher training, we studied the ways a yoga class sequence follows both the chakras and the eight-limb path of yoga. Vrksasana (tree pose) is the part of our practice that corresponds to both the heart chakra and Pratyahara. It is the moment we leave the oceanic flow of the Sun Salutations and turn inward. We engage our core in order to open our heart. We begin to surrender our will and listen to the rush of blood in our ears. We balance our bodies on a single ankle bone and trust that it will hold.

If the birds will teach us everything we need to know about flight, then surely they can also teach us how to land. And what is landing if not forgiveness? What is turning inward if not an act of trust? One morning after I started the cleanse, as I awoke before dawn to do my Sun Salutations, I thought of those plump blue jays, landing on that skinny branch. I inhaled my arms high in my dark living room and bent my creaky body over my knees. I felt my feet on the cold wood floor. “I forgive L,” I thought and felt a tidal wave of sadness sweep me under and catch in my chest. I stepped back into downward facing dog and looked back at my knees. “I forgive myself,” I thought and felt myself land – wobbling, haltingly, shakily – on the thin branch of a new tree, not entirely trusting that it would hold, but wanting it to, more than anything.

Maya Stein’s full poem is below:

you will know (for T) – by Maya Stein

It will be all right in the end, and maybe even in the middle. You will not suffer as long as you think you will. You are not fated to be unhappy. You are not destined for failure. Remember who you are. Let me say it again. Remember who you are. Be gentle. Practice exquisite acts of self-care. You don’t have to be as strong as you think you do. You don’t have to be wise and certain about your path. Your frailty is beautiful, and your innocence too. Getting lost is another exercise in navigation. You can’t fix everything you touch. You won’t break everything you touch. Don’t apologize if you’re tired. Don’t second-guess your stomach. Maintain eye contact with everything, especially yourself. Fall to your knees at least once a day. Say yes at least twice. Love daringly, wholly, unapologetically. Believe in magic. Befriend your fear. Look up. Listen. The birds will tell you everything you need to know about flight. Forgive yourself your great sadness. Unlock what hurts. Make a prayer for loss. Unpen your words. Get messier than anyone thinks you should. You’ll know when you’re ready. I’ll say it again. You’ll know when you’re ready.

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.

Suffering

September 27, 2010 § 2 Comments

The idea to give up suffering is not unique to me, of course, but I have been thinking about it a lot. Always I am in the process of giving something up: chocolate, wine, complaining, dairy products. I have this idea that if I restrict some part of myself – the feline part, the aspect of myself that craves warm sunshine and sweet pleasures – that I will fit the mold I am supposed to fit, that I will somehow be able to lop off all the parts of myself that I am not as fond of. I realize that this doesn’t make any sense. I just finished a yoga workshop with Rolf Gates who asked us this very question. “Why is it that we think that if we kick ourselves around enough, we’ll be good people?”

On Saturday, I decided to try out this idea. What would happen, I wondered, if I stopped trying to get my life to look like the inside of a magazine, if I stopped obsessing about the outsides of things: fluffing the pillows just so, cleaning up the endless parade of Thomas trains, trying to get the golden tan and perfect abs of a swimsuit model?

I lasted about two minutes. As soon as I left my bedroom at ten of seven Saturday morning, I tripped on a stack of children’s books and immediately told my son (not even five) that he needed to be a bit more responsible about his things. “It’s OK, I’ll clean it up” my husband said, coming out of the bathroom with toothpaste still on his lip. “Go. To. Yoga,” he mouthed. I sighed. Already I was failing. Only now I was beginning to suffer about the fact that I couldn’t seem to stop suffering.

In yoga class, I felt like I had been given someone else’s body. Someone older and remarkably inflexible. I have just started running again and my hips are tight. I could barely manage downward dog and still breathe. What would not suffering look like right now? I asked myself. My body answered by sinking into child’s pose, which I rarely ever do. My usual mantra is “Do it right or don’t do it at all.” Hardly conducive to a lack of suffering.

On the way home I decided to stop at the store. Instead of calling my husband and checking to see if he needed anything, I continued on and took my time selecting apples, some chocolate chia seeds, coconut milk yogurt. No suffering, I thought to myself. I am going to enjoy myself. When I came home, Scott came running out of the house to meet me. “I almost called the yoga studio,” he said. “We’re really late for Oliver’s project.”

“What?” I asked. “I just went to the store.” Then I looked down at my watch and realized I was home almost an hour later than I said I would be.

“Oliver’s project,” Scott repeated. “It’s today at Lowe’s.”

“Oh God,” I said, “I’m sorry.” I had forgotten that Scott signed he and Oliver up for a father-son-build-a-firetruck project from ten till eleven. And then I added, “But you didn’t tell me. How was I supposed to know? I really wish you would learn to communicate more with me. I can’t do all the work here.”

Later, after they left, I found the word “LOWES” in big letters on today’s date on the wipe-off calendar we have in the mudroom. Oh, I thought, he did tell me. And I just made him feel awful. In my desire to end my own suffering, I had somehow passed it on, chucked it into my husband’s lap. Even the silence in the house felt accusatory. Gus, my baby, not yet two, walked in. “Mommy, play,” he said. But I was already gone into the buzz of feeling bad, and on top of that, the pressure to not suffer. You are just not doing it right, I told myself.

Also on the calendar under “LOWES” was a reminder about an Octoberfest party I had forgotten about. And I needed to bring something. “Let’s make brownies,” I told my son, and instead of playing, I sat him up on the counter with me as I took brownie mix from the pantry and added melted margarine and water, letting Gus taste the thick batter. I made frosting too, following a rich vegan recipe that made me feel a bit better about myself. After I frosted the brownies, I tried a small spoonful of icing and then another. Pleasure, I thought to myself. I am going to make this day about pleasure. I am going to allow myself all that I usually restrict, all that I typically deny. The spoonful of frosting was followed by another and then more, until half of the bowl was gone.

“Mommy, play,” Gus said, wandering into the kitchen again, after the leftover frosting was in the trashcan, safe, where the part of me that can’t be trusted couldn’t get to it. Now, in addition to being miserable, I had a stomachache, a head flying with sugar. I wanted to cry with the failure of it all, with how hard I try, only to come up short. I had just been to a yoga class. Why wasn’t I fixed? I felt like a fraud, like someone who goes to mass and then yells at the car behind then while still in the church parking lot.

Somehow I had mistaken a lack of suffering with hedonism, I had confused letting myself off the hook with allowing myself to get out of control. I had thrown self-discipline out the window. I had simply externalized my suffering, handed it off to someone else, and in my pursuit of external pleasure had created a brand new type of pain. I had just gone from one extreme to the next. I had abandoned my northern Puritanical roots for a day on the Las Vegas strip and had completely skipped the middle. Why, I wondered, did moderation feel so extreme?

In the same yoga workshop in which Rolf Gates talked about the way we beat ourselves us, he stressed the need for stability. Equinimity. A sense of happiness with ordinary things, with the way life was at that moment. The workshop was held in a large gym, and even though outside, it was a normal, swampy D.C. summer, inside the gym, the air conditioner was on full blast. Those of us in yoga tanks were shivering. “How many of you practice yoga in a warm room?” Rolf asked. All of us raised our hands. “Is this room warm?” he laughed. “But it shouldn’t matter,” he continued. “You show up, you do yoga. It’s hot, it’s cold. It doesn’t matter. You don’t feel like it? It doesn’t matter. You show up. Yoga isn’t what you are doing. It’s how you are being.” I thought of that now. Being yoga. Practicing equinimity. Ignoring the whining voice in my own head the way I sometimes ignored my son’s: “I can’t understand you when you talk like that, sweetie.” A way of only paying attention to my  power, to the truth, to the way things were, regardless of how I felt about them. A way to end suffering by simply ignoring it, by waking up to the present moment and just sinking in to whatever it offered. Maybe suffering was optional?

When I was moving, my yoga teacher, Jessica Anderson suggested I make a self-care package for myself, something to get me through these days and weeks of change and uncertainly. She herself had a book full of inspirational quotes, photos, poems. She told me about how she paves her weeks on Sunday nights, making sure she had what she needed in the days ahead to be her highest self: time to meditate, healthy food in the fridge, time with her children. A way of caring for the powerful part in her. I, on the other hand, had forgotten the discipline it took to be an adult. To take responsibility. I had mistaken selfishness for self-care.

So I wrote down a list of what I need for the week. Green smoothies for breakfast and chocolate-flavored tea. Poems by Mary Oliver and my fleece-lined flip-flops. More vegetables. Time on my mediation cushion and time watching Glee. Talking like Sir Topham Hatt and watching my sons giggle and race Thomas and Gordon around their wooden track. Snuggling with my husband. Simple, simple things. Things that take me out of my head and into that soft, still place behind my heart.

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