Beyond the Asana

 

Like the perennial spring rains that surrender to the miracle of flower carpeted country-sides and luminous rainbows, Yoga yields the wonder of insight and connection. Beyond the postures, yoga gently nudges judgment and restriction out of the way leaving in its wake, expansion and possibility. It has quite literally changed my life, by altering my perceptions and mindset. Anyone that practices yoga on a regular basis notices the transformational ability this tradition offers the body, an increase in strength and flexibility.  But less obvious are the subtle changes that occur over time.

Pre-yoga, I was not only rigid in my body, but in my attitudes and psyche as well.  Giggling through my first class, I felt disconnected and out of place, but something lured me to continue. I was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at the age of five and thankfully was always active, running, biking, dancing and loved the experience I got from all of these.  They were a diversion from doldrums and the drudgery of day to day responsibility.  When I felt strong, I felt empowered. But not until yoga, did I dispel the myth that I was connected to my body, that I paid attention. Reality was, I was escaping rather than dealing with deep issues that unconsciously kept me paralyzed with fear.

Like the first chakra (energy center) that begins with grounding then gradually moves upward to the lightness of being in the seventh chakra, I began with the physical poses.  I practiced them in earnest, paying attention to every nuance.   Pranayama or breath control was the biggest challenge until one day during a practice the victory breath clicked. I was able to initiate each asana with the breath.  That ‘aha’ moment spurred me on to learning more about the origins of yoga, the ancient sacred philosophies.  Daily, I devoured yogic books that went into all facets of the practice.  I was diligent in my reading and physical practice, but often never seemed to be able to take the lessons off the mat and into life.  My awareness around judging others, being critical of myself, fueling fear and resentment with thoughts of past hurts and disappointment was limited.

With clenched fists, I forged on and only over time (like marinating a Marsala sauce or aging a cabernet) did I begin to open my palms and allow myself to receive the myriad of gifts yoga offers.  One of them being the ability to love myself, even my diabetes and to embrace my body as my best friend and closest ally.  I learned to not dive into the sea of despair or leap into the arms of fear when something goes wrong, but rather to breathe and listen for the lesson, even when it’s a difficult one.  To believe that I can heal, I can change one breath at a time has been a tremendous source of freedom.

Yoga has taught me that I do not have to be the sum of my thinking, that the stories of who I am, according to authors other than myself and my God, don’t matter.  They are mere perceptions often formed by unconscious biases and judgment. And, likewise, I am now better able to release my immediate perception of others, to not judge, to find the human-ness in all people.  Does this mean I always love everyone? Heck no. 

That is the other insidious gift of yoga—it teaches you to be honest, to drop façades and to simply be you and that is all that being “authentic” is about.  Simple, distill the layers and live from the heart.  I try to live now with a greater presence (awareness) of my words, my actions, do I still fail?  Heck yes.  

Yoga is a practice though and it may take a lifetime and beyond to get it right.  Meanwhile, I can keep coming back to my mat to confess, to regroup, to pray, and to process.  When I am wrong I can say I am sorry I can surrender that need to control.   Yoga has given me balance not just in half moon or crow pose, but in my life with a deeper awareness of myself and others.

I teach yoga and often students will ask for advice on how to do a particular pose that is challenging for them.  Being the queen of modifications, I am always thrilled to help people find their unique expression of an asana.  But I try hard to emphasize, the poses will look different in every body, and that the pose itself is the tip of the iceberg.  What lies underneath, is the ability to transcend, to ground, to listen and to find that secret garden within.

 

   



Remembering the Christmas Shaker

 

 

Christmas in Paris

 A few years back I wrote this piece after Christmas caroling in Sonoma, something I always cherish and miss, but I will get to that later.  On that particular day, a bit of magic floated by and landed on a simple egg shaped shaker.  Let me explain.  I had organized a Christmas caroling event at several senior centers.  It had been a while since I fa la la’d with a group but I was desperate.  Desperate to combat the corrosive commercialization of Christmas.  There is no profit in caroling unless merriment is marketable and I’m sure some crafty financier could find a way.  But our small scruffy troupe of singers was strictly pro-bono.  A musician friend of mine brought his paraphernalia; a tambourine, shakers, and music.  We sang our hearts out and the instruments were a huge hit.  He let me use them for the rest of the day as he had a wedding and couldn’t make the later times.

Our final destination was a large facility with many of the patients in the throes of dementia, much like the other earlier facilities.  When I handed the shaker to a lively resident singing with verve; she shook it like a salsa singer her arms waving in all directions.   Evelyn better known as “Eve” wiggled in her wheelchair while belting out each carol.  She knew every stanza by memory.  We the singers mind you, had to refer to our printed lyrics.

The room was packed full of faces remembering songs they sang in yesteryears.  Despite wheelchairs, catheters, and the grey walls of an institution, the residents sang through their memory loss– some with smiles others with tears.  Silent Night was a beloved and we sang it twice—each time the room rang out with voices that often rarely speak.  After singing for about forty minutes—it was time to go.  We went around and said good-byes and many of the Elders grabbed our hands and whispered “God bless. Thank you.” It was difficult not to cry—I thought about how isolated we are in this society and vowed silently to visit again.

Then Eve asked with her sweet southern drawl “What girl-scout troop ya’ll from?”  I wasn’t sure if she was serious or not but I laughed and thanked her for the compliment. She insisted though and one of the singers chirped “troop 45”. Eve laughed and slapped her palms together. We waved one last farewell and the room became a flurry of wheelchairs lining up for the trip back to their rooms. A few days later while returning the instruments to my gracious friend, I realized I’d left the egg shaker with Eve. 

When I called the facility they reported they had not seen it but I was welcomed to stop in and look for it.  A few hours later I walked into the room where we had sung and spotted Eve right away.  She was cutting out green paper wreaths with a few of the other residents.  When she saw me her face lit up. 

“I didn’t know what girl scout troop to call.  I have your little black egg. Let’s go get it.”  She quickly whipped her wheel chair away from the table and despite being in a hurry, I followed. 

We got to her room and there lie the little shaker on a dresser beside a plethora of dated black and white pictures.  When I asked about the photos the past grew a voice. Like a seasoned actress taking the stage, Eve grew tall in her wheelchair as she was transported back in time.

“Oh that is me in Paris before the war.  I was a fashion designer—Paris didn’t notice my color you know I made the finest dresses in Paris and come Christmas, everywhere I looked women were wearing one of my dresses.” I told Eve how impressed I was and that I can’t even sew a button on.”  She laughed.  I asked her more about Paris.

“Hmm, well Paris at Christmas– sizzling. Songs and celebrations–they started December 6th on St Nicklaus day—did you know there really was a St Nick?”  I said I did but it was as if Eve were talking to an unseen audience she ignored my answer and carried on. “Shoot St Nicklaus was a generous man lived oh back a long time ago.  He was a priest but before that his parents had died while he was very young you see and he inherited a lot of money—but didn’t keep a lick for hisself—did you ever hear about the gold in the shoes?”  I said no although I had and Eve continued.

“Well back in St Nickolas’ day see a girl had to have a dowry or else she’d be sold into slavery.  And there was this poor daddy he had three gorgeous girls- but no money for a dowry and soon they’d be all sold.  He cried and begged and low and behold… St Nick in the disguise of dark threw gold into those girls’ shoes that were drying out on the hearth.  That’s where the tale of stockings comes from.  Some say it was balls of gold that landed in those shoes that’s why my mother always put oranges in our stockings and hung a gold Christmas ball on the tree—a dedication of sorts.”

Eve paused and I took my opportunity to ask her how she had gotten back to America.  I wondered how we veered so far from the origins of the conversation.

“Oh I moved to New York when the war was beginning.  I met my husband Harry there. He bumped into me while walking down Madison Avenue.  It was Christmas and snowing to beat the band.  We ducked into a diner for a cup of coffee and waited for the snow to ease up.  Then we walked looking at all the pretty shops they was decorated so nicely.   We got married six months later.  I missed Paris real bad but there was no going back not with the war and all.  America didn’t favor designers like me—not like Paris.  But Harry bought me a little shop and we did alright—I kept on making dresses—sort a like an underground thing ya see. Come Christmas though—we had a flurry of business mind ya.”

I felt as if I was in a time warp hearing the sounds of the city and I asked Eve to tell me more about Christmas back then.

“Oh it was magic– a feeling of excitement stirring the air and well it was as if you stepped off life’s merry-go-round for a few weeks.  Folks greetin one another, presents were simple homemade most of em.  My mama used to make all sorts of delicious treats. I tried but I was better at making dresses mind you.”

Eve paused for a moment as if reflecting on her words and there was a shift in her demeanor.  She asked me to hand her a tube of lipstick sitting next to the egg shaker.  She pursed her mouth and applied the ruby red color then continued.

“Harry and I live in New York I wonder where he is he is usually not this late.  We have to get our Christmas tree.  I hope he’s not out drinking with the boys.”

At that very moment a nursing assistant popped his head in the room. “Eve you have to come to dinner now.”

I smiled and nodded cuing him that I was leaving.

Eve patted her lap and turned to me “Now what girl-scout troupe did you say you are from dear?” then she winked. I smiled back wondering where she was or which one of us was hoodwinked. We said our goodbyes and I grabbed the little shaker that led me through the archives of a life and back. 

When I told her I would return as I wanted more stories she said matter of fact she may not be here;

“When Harry gets home we’re going back to Paris dear.”   I looked around at the stark room, the yellowing linoleum floor and thought for her sake, I hope she gets there soon.

During this Christmas, I hope I remember that it is not about the gifts, but the magic of the season that brings love and warmth from one heart to another.


The Beauty of the Breath

Listen to the glorious whistle of the wind as it rustles through trees; chirping birds accompany the buzz of an insect and then the silence. A bright sun penetrates the body and whispers for muscles to relax into the warmth.  The lure of nature and its power to turn tension into tranquility is pure magic as well as a gift.  Breath too is a gift, a refuge if you will when nature is far from the beeping city cabs or bustle of western life.  Breath is able to take us on a journey that like Mother Nature can nourish our mind, body, and spirit.

Unless one lives in the country or at the coast, achieving a sense of bliss and balance is a daily challenge.  The highways packed with cars and anxious drivers trying to get to work are for most the first interaction of the day. Or perhaps if you live in the city, it’s running to catch a bus, train or subway.  The screech of wheels grinding, people bumping into one another as the steel doors clamp shut, a barrage of smoke and dust lingers.  Like ants racing in all directions, mornings for many of us are a stampede of hyperactivity– not conducive of mindful living. Thankfully, breath, no matter where we reside or work, is available on demand as a refuge from the chaos of modern living.  It is the key to reconnecting to calm thoughts that leave us empowered, cleansed. 

Breath has the ability to combat fear and anxiety; physiologically as well as psychically. It is literally impossible to breathe slow, steady and remain nervous for the body chemically responds.  The physical rhythm of pranayama (breath) is why yoga works as a mind body cure. A practical guide to embracing a breathing practice into your daily routine is simple, straight forward.  It involves two things; a willingness to stop and a willingness to breathe—mindfully.  What in the blazes is breathing mindfully?  What is yoga breath? It is noticing our respirations bringing thoughts inward. By breathing with the intention to quiet the mind through the body. 

Initially, accomplishing this is best done by counting inhales and exhales. One, two, three, four, five as you inhale, hold at the top of the inhale, slowly exhale to the same count of five.  Gradually extending the breath to longer, slower breaths which then in turn begin to effect the body.  Muscles stop clenching and when thoughts invade the breath work (which they will) let them pass as if a fluffy cloud and return your mind to the practice.

This is a simple synopsis of basic pranayama or breathing with intention. As you continue with your practice, like the myriad of Mother Natures’ beauty, the breath will reveal the light that resides in all of us but too often is buried with business. If you don’t have time to whisk away to the forest or beach, know that the breath tenderly guides us to that mirror pond image of who we are without the intrusion of stigmas or expectations. It is there at our beckon call—waiting in the wings ready to fly us back to our natural state of serenity

 

"Love is the soul's light"  Rumi 

An Ode to Yoga

Fourteen years have slid by since I first stepped on to a yoga mat, finally ready to commit to the practice.  I was living in Monterey, California at the time and dealing with both physical and emotional reasons for seeking a mind-body healing. What I didn’t know, at the beginning of this journey, was yoga’s soft spoken ability to seep into areas of my life that were fragmented by fear. Yoga gathered a circle of my splintered selves and invited them to meet one another; to join hands and unify. We all have sides of ourselves we reserve for private viewing only; the lonely, the frightened, the angry, the jealous, the immature, the happy, the giddy, the funny. Getting on my mat consistently gave me hope that I could dare to live to dream; that all circumstances are subject to change.

Yoga surprised me at every turn; and still does.  What began as a physical practice gradually morphed into a way of living in the world.  I smile remembering my utter commitment to the postures; wanting to perfect them, studying the correct Sanskrit name for each.  When one of my first teachers exclaimed that she could teach an entire class on breath work; I thought she was either exaggerating or a lunatic. Soon enough though, the breath revealed its illustrious power and I began to realize pranayama differentiates yoga from exercise.  The slow steady awareness of my breath began to carry me inward and the layers of societal conditioning and hurtful experiences started to melt away. Often, an issue I imagined I’d already dealt with would arise during a practice as if a pose had unlocked a trapped door. Those stuffed feelings bubbled to the surface where I could then exhale them away. Their power over me dissolved.

This happens over and over in yoga, emotions or thoughts flare up but the breath anchors the mind to the practice, where I can see more clearly.  When a pond becomes smooth after the ripple of a stone or the wind; vivid reflections appear. Yoga began to quiet my mind to stop the current of thoughts that vied for my attention. In the eye of the storm lies a serene place of stillness a haven from the hectic whirl of life. Yoga was and is my haven. When we moved to Bend Oregon, and it took longer than usual to find a place to live, I practiced yoga anywhere I could; in a cluster of trees, the ocean, a motel room, a musty gym with a leaky ceiling. It occurred to me that yoga was within and like my breath could travel anywhere I went. My practice became as essential to my well-being as taking my insulin every day (I’ve been a type I diabetic since the age of five). It kept me sane and gave me hope in my own inner strength.

Although I still love a strong asana practice, I have learned to listen (not all the time mind you) to my body’s needs.  Sometimes settling in to a legs up the wall with a heart opener constitutes a practice.  Other times, I may do a two hour session of power vinyasa.  I carry my mat around like a child’s cherished blanket.  While traipsing through Europe my mat graced the floor of airports and the dirt of vineyards; yoga grounded me to that true self that could lend an ear to the mind, body and soul listening for direction.

When I began to teach yoga, I realized that I was merely a conduit.  It was through teaching and assisting others to be self-accepting that I learned to take my own advice. Who cares if you hold the wall while doing a balancing pose—it’s the intent, the breath that is the essence of yoga.  Unlike gymnastics, yoga is not a competitor sport and the more I taught the more I began to understand the true light of yoga; the gift of seeing a piece of ourselves in everyone. Yoga taught me to ditch judgements and condemnation and to give way to the commonality in all beings. That even the great sages and saints (and the modern yogic gurus) deal with temptation. Yoga has not saved me from meeting angry people or shielded me from crankiness on days that are packed with annoying things like traffic or the common cold —it has though helped me return to the breath and the practice to renew my sense of self. The self that when on my mat is unplugged from daily demands and worry; the gathered self that is free to dance like a child in the rain filled with wonder and gratitude.  Yoga has been a trusty friend that is there always waiting in the wings to take me to the magical land of truths.


"If light is in your heart, you will find your way home."  Rumi



The Clearing  

Within lies a sacred space untarnished by the years of trial and error.

A sanctuary with lavish pools of healing water warmed by the light of Shanti.

A place to surrender masks, fear, pretense it is the eye of the storm, the calm amid chaos.

In this place, life’s kinetic motion disappears into the clearing where green ferns sway above white sand

as you await my return and Modern reality is beholden to the mysteries of spirit.




 

Reparations

 

     During a recent trip to Kansas I had a few  hours to kill before my flight.  Browsing an airport  bookstores the Atlantic magazine caught my eye due to the compelling front cover which read:

                                   The Case for Reparations

Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.

 

     Nestled in the middle seat of a Southwest plane, I opened the magazine and poured over this lengthy piece that gave astonishing testimony to the realities of racism in America.  I could hear mutterings from wary readers that “slavery was a long time ago and Jim Crow is dead” or “African Americans need to move on. ”  Like the tragedy of the Holocaust—moving on requires reparations, acknowledgements from the persecutors to the persecuted that indicates not only a disdain for the past but a plan for the future.  Yes, slavery and human trafficking is no longer legal and laws preventing racial discrimination have been written but prejudice sentiments remain.  They simply went underground and donned a disguise.

      What struck me about this article was the rippling effect slavery has had on the African American race and on America in general.  One such glaring upshot was fair housing was limited to whites only. The author, Ta-Nehis Coates,  writes in this gut wrenching article; “Blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport.   Families were robbed of land that was rightfully theirs.  Land that had been paid for and farmed was within a day’s notice yanked away.  African American families were also evicted from homes they bought under contracts that unbeknownst to them were falsified.  Creating bogus contracts became big business by whites.  Black families were bamboozled; told they owed more than the amount of the agreed mortgage or handed mysterious property taxes with an impossible price tag. These contracts were scams that charged high interests and were exempt from any laws but there was no alternative or recourse.  F.H. A. loans were not available to black families.  And if a person missed one payment; they seized the property no questions asked and all of the money that had been invested up until that time (which included hefty down payments) was confiscated with no ramifications for the crooks and their contracts. 

 

     “This was hardly unusual. In 2001, the Associated Press published a three-part investigation into the theft of black-owned land stretching back to the antebellum period. The series documented some 406 victims and 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars. The land was taken through means ranging from legal chicanery to terrorism. “Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia,” the AP reported, as well as “oil fields in Mississippi” and “a baseball spring training facility in Florida.”

 

     Restrictive covenants created by the Federal Housing Association were deemed illegal in the late forties and early fifties but like many of our laws that are left to interpretation, this didn’t translate to enforcement.  Whites were encouraged to keep their neighborhoods segregated at all costs. If you sold to a Negro you were terrorized.  Groups of Catholics and Christians formed a membership in Chicago that using scare tactics drove any ethnic group other than whites, out.  Coates recounts: “On July 1 and 2 of 1946, a mob of thousands assembled in Chicago’s Park Manor neighborhood, hoping to eject a black doctor who’d recently moved in. The mob pelted the house with rocks and set the garage on fire. The doctor moved away.”  Neighborhoods where black families lived were propagandized “undesirable” plummeting property values and promoting the great white flight.  A vestige of slavery, the outcomes of unfair housing has yet to be rectified.  And here in lies the crux of this article, which I recommend every American  read (it is available online) that we cannot pretend restitution has been made.  We as a country need to keep this conversation alive not for the sake of lingering in the past but in order for healing to truly happen, reparations need to be made.

 

As a white female, I have no idea what it feels like to be condemned for the color of my skin.  My neighbor, Charlie, does.  He is a delightful African American man who was raised in Georgia.  He is a Vietnam veteran, a seasoned carpenter, and has been married for thirty-seven years to a wonderful white woman whom he  “adores.”   Charlie will only divulge his past experiences when I hound him (which is frequent).  It is a past fraught with slavery as his mother picked cotton as a child and worked all of her life for a white family as a domestic.  During one of many of our conversations, Charlie recalls being served supper, as a child,  from the backdoor of the main house and was forbidden to enter any other way. On the backs of those that toiled in the fields, southern whites benefitted financially.  Charlie claims he harbors no resentment towards any one.  He rose above the chains of segregation bought a house here in California and raised a family.  But he notices things; things such as the gentrification of the neighborhood or they dwindling number of African Americans on his street.   

 

     A few years ago when I lived in Philly and taught for DeVry University I had several students who were from the projects; their family destitute yet they were clawing their way out of a destructive cycle of poverty and limited choices.  One young man in my speech class recited a poem that brought me to tears.  “I Can’t Read.”  The poet spoke of being pushed through the system for his skills in basketball but still he couldn’t pick up a book and read.  It was a reflective piece of work that gives pause to the deep-seated issue of race, reparations, and the flagrant need for repair.  It was a smack of realism tossed in my face.  I thought of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; how the hell are you going to care about an education when you’re hungry or living in a place over run with vermin and drugs.  It’s not enough to say oh geez that’s too bad, or geez those people are disgusting how could they live that way and yes how can they!   A paralysis as pervasive as a pandemic has settled into generations.  Of course the same can be said for any ethic group that trudged to America but the difference--families were not shredded by slavery.  Fathers or mothers or children were not sold off and never seen again.

      As my plane began its descent, I was still engrossed in the contents of this article.  I wondered where do we begin?  I thumbed over the claims of Coates that “Liberals today mostly view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality. They ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success—and the elevation of that punishment, in the mid-20th century, to federal policy. President Lyndon Johnson may have noted in his historic civil-rights speech at Howard University in 1965 that “Negro poverty is not white poverty.” But his advisers and their successors were, and still are, loath to craft any policy that recognizes the difference.”   Perhaps it is in the most basic of places we need to start that of our own consciousness and cognition.  Realization of how the past continues to influence the present.    Perhaps it is in the re-writing of history to include the African Americans that paved the way for not only freedom but for advancement side by side the portrait of racism.  Like all communication problems, if there is no discourse there is no resolution.  Reparation may not lie in finger pointing and resentment but it does lie in fessing up to the damage and to ending blatant disregard for equality.   We may not have been the owner of slaves but we may be the owner of residual attitudes.  All races have their nuances and that is what makes for cultural diversity and the rich tapestry we call America.  But there lies an inherent elephant in the room if we as a country continue to tiptoe around the issue of race and reparations.  If we stand around and watch a person get bullied and do nothing—how does that distinguish us from the bully?