PRACTICE

Now is the Winter of Our Discontent

February 14, 2012
2 Comments

I’ve been under a delusion that yoga will always make me feel better. I went to practice yesterday when I wasn’t in a particularly positive mood, and I left pretty much in the same mood. I kept waiting for the sense of bliss of stretched out muscles, deep breathing, calmer thoughts. They didn’t come. I left and immediately felt my shoulders stiffen in the icy wind and my heart recede further into my chest.

During class, I was feeling irritated in Side Angle Pose, irritated when the teacher offered a suggestion to bend my knee more deeply, irritated that the pose still hurts, still challenges me after 10 years of practice. ‘When does this get easier?’ I thought, stretching my arm angrily towards the front of the room . ‘When do I start feeling good?’ What I think I really meant was, “when do I start feeling good permanently?”

I read an article tonight by Frank Jude Boccio, a yogi and Dharma teacher who sometimes writes for Yoga Journal. He writes about the idea of denial (avidya or ignorance) of impermanence as a root of suffering. When we refuse to let things go, or even just to allow things to change, we suffer. The truth of our reality is the we will lose everything. Before we lose our greatest gift, life, we lose a lot of little things (see: Elizabeth Bishop). Take my yoga practice: here I was prepared for my yoga bliss to descend on me after approx. my 5th sun salutation and it didn’t appear! Then I wanted to feel amazing and brave in forearm stand, only to find I barely had to strength to hold onto Dolphin pose. There is something to be said for disciplined action that sometimes really can change our thought patterns or alter our mood, but this wasn’t the problem here. The problem was I wasn’t willing to see is that my practice is dynamic and changing. No matter how hard I work at my practice, eventually, I will lose it, as I will lose everything. The real practice for me here is not forearm stand, it’s living in the present and accepting reality as it comes.

This has become so clear to me particularly this winter when both Randy and I had a grandparent fall and break a hip. We know that this signals the beginning of the end for our respective relatives, but we both had the same response: that’s it? . After all that, their whole lives filled with their particular passions and drama, it comes down to turning the wrong way in the bathroom one morning or misgauging the amount of space you have between countertops. Novelists and poets have written about this particular irony forever, but somehow it feels different when it’s happening to your own family. Our grandparents have both lived very long, happy lives, there’s no unfinished business, no small children. It’s not a tragedy. But it really feels like one.

Our culture at the moment is pretty obsessed with denying death. Death is kind of a taboo subject. We love to talk about sex, we could talk about sex all day. It’s interesting because just a hundred or more years ago, in the Victorian era, these subjects were exactly reversed. No one talked about sex ever, but everyone talked about death pretty frequently. The Victorians were confronted with death more regularly than we are now–children died all the time growing up, people died of the flu, malaria, typhoid fever, infected cuts–all sorts of things that hardly anyone in America dies of now. Emily Post devoted a section of her book on manners to the proper etiquette for dealing with someone who is grieving, Tennyson wrote pages and pages of poetry to his dead friend, people regularly wore black for a year to signal that they were in mourning–Queen Victoria wore black for forty years after the death of her husband. 

There’s too many problems in Victorian cultue for me to even begin to talk about , but their acknowledgment of death was not one of them. Even though we’re not confronted with literal death as frequently as the Victorians (or anyone else in history, for that matter) we are still confronted with impermenance, and that is what we have to get square with. This is why the present moment matters so much. I dread the day when my grandfather dies–but he is still with me now, in this moment.

There is no ‘permanent.’ Not for yoga practice, not for our relationships, not for our lives. So letting something go, letting it change, is all practice and is all good for us. My own discontent arises from this tugging on things that are already slipping out of my grasp.

Shakespeare’s Richard III, who speaks those lines in the title, is miserable, unloved, weak–basically everything that we fear about being human. He is so unhappy that he’s determined to make everyone else as unhappy as he is. Unsuprisingly (spoiler alert!) he doesn’t get what he wants and he still dies. We’re given a finite amount of time, I don’t want to spend it being all Richard III-ish. But I also don’t want to put pressure on my yoga practice to always make me feel happy. That’s another kind of ignorance. The present moment means accepting what is, even if it’s pain, even if it’s death.

When I feel this, the sense of the pure immensity of experience, sometimes it feel like the knife’s edge between pain and joy. Rilke puts it this way:

“Oh shooting star

that fell in my eyes and through my body,

not to forget you. To endure.”

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A Haunting

February 7, 2012
1 Comment

“The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside….
The Brain is just the weight of God –
For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –
And they will differ – if they do –
As Syllable from Sound.”
~Emily Dickinson

When I was a kid, I was convinced that a whole tribe of green, muscly-armed monsters lived in the walls of our house. No matter how much my mom tried to convince me that the monsters couldn’t get me, I knew if I fell asleep, a pair of ferocious arms would come out of the walls and snatch me. So I kept a hysterical vigil most nights, too terrified to sleep (this was obviously really fun for my parents).

Surprise, I watched "Ghostbusters" 300 times as a kid

Eventually, one night I fell asleep from sheerexhaustion and dreamed that I had been captured by the monsters, but so had the rest of my family, and after the kidnapping, the monsters seemed to mostly leave us alone. Also, what I was sure was going to be a hideous lair somehow morphed into a pleasant hotel that I remembered staying at once in Florida. Either my imagination failed here due to lack of experience or somehow my unconscious rallied and sent up a message of safety; whatever it was, that particular fear ended after that dream.

I was probably 6 when I had that dream, but I still remember it vividly. It is a touchstone for my unsolved, roving anxiety that still pervades my adult life.

Doing shadow work forces me to engage whatever I’m afraid of instead of quick turning on last week’s episode of “Downtown Abbey.” But this is so hard, especially when what you’re afraid of are your own thoughts. I was thinking about this the other day when I was tempted to watch a scary movie–I always feel a perverse pull towards scary movies–especially ghost stories–even though I KNOW I won’t sleep for days afterward. I never want to watch anything violent, but something about watching other people’s struggle with an invisible force that torments them, holds me in thrall.

It only takes a Jungian second to realize that’s because I’m also haunted. I don’t even need a spirit from the dead–I’ve got  my thoughts and my imagined explanations, my fears, and my sadness over past mistakes. As usual, projection avoids the issue in oneself.

This is where mantra practice comes in. Most anyone who tries to heal anxiety naturally recommends meditation. I happen to be a pretty remedial meditation student. My mind feels so active, I can’t bear to sit down and be still. I had about given up on it when it occurred to me to practice mantra. In yoga school, we read the book “Healing Mantras” and were asked to adopt a mantra and practice it for forty consecutive days. This sounded pretty hokey to me. It’s not that I don’t love crystals-horoscopes-Reki therapy-type stuff, but my experience of mantra was Jeff Goldblum’s brief cameo in “Annie Hall,” where he’s shown at a groovy 70s party on the phone to his guru saying, “I forgot my mantra.” But because it was required, I took it on. Most of us bought malas (okay that may have been because it seemed like an excuse to buy a cute necklace) but actually it turned out to be a useful meditation tool. A mala is like an old-school timer; there are 108 beads, and every time you say your mantra, you touch a bead. Then you move onto the next bead. You do that until you come back to the beginning. When you’re back to the beginning, you’re done. The repetition of your mantra and coordination your fingers to the beads takes concentration–you must be present here–and that’s all it is.  For me, it feels like meditation with training wheels.

Choosing a mantra is personal, and in some ways, what you choose to say doesn’t matter that much. Probably you don’t want to meditate on a phrase like “I hate my boss” but people have all sorts of mantras. I learned sanskrit in conjunction with mantra practice, so that’s what feels right to me, but my parents also meditate, and my mom’s mantra is sometimes just the word “peace.”  There’s a lot of literature out there about mantra practice as healing the body and mind because of sound waves, energy centers, just creating good “vibes” in general. I don’t know about that, though I do love magical things so I’m tempted to believe all of it–but the practice stands on its own as a useful tool for concentration. An easy mantra in sanskrit is “So Hum” which basically means “I am that.” It’s simple and it coordinates easily with the breath. Some people like to chant their mantra, some like to say it quietly, some like to repeat it in their minds silently. For me, I make up a little chant to help me remember the words and then repeat it mentally.

I still don’t ever want to sit down and meditate, but sometimes, when I feel my thoughts come at me like bad spirits, I will reach for my mala and the smooth feel of the beads reminds me that I’m not at the mercy of my fears; there is a way out, and strangely, it’s by going in.


Shadowboxing

January 28, 2012
2 Comments

I can’t believe it’s been almost a full year since my last post. At this time last year, I was about to start Yoga School. Doing my 200 hour teacher training was demanding, exhilarating, scary, and deeply rewarding. Especially having given myself distance from the experience, I sense its value in a way that is different from how I felt about it immediately afterwards, and certainly while I was in training. My whole world was about yoga for those four months; when I wasn’t practiicng yoga, I was reading or writing about yoga, so this little blog was neglected. It was one of those times where I was either memorizing yoga sutras, or watching trashy reality tv–there was no in between. But that’s not really why I stopped writing. I stopped writing from fear, the greatest enemy of all artists.

I think of 2011 as the year of the shadow. Not just darkness–but the sense that something is hidden in the darkness that wants to be uncovered. I uncovered a lot in myself this year and not all of it was good. It’s hard to admit sometimes how many shadows we have in our being, but denying it is worse. I still maintain that in my next life I want to come back as a tall blonde who’s good at sports and doesn’t consider the world too deeply. Seriously, the world seems a lot easier for people who are gorgeous and athletic. In the meantime, my best bet seems to be listening deeply and engaging in what meditation teacher Sally Kempton calls “Shadow work.”

Shadow work is based on Carl Jung’s concept of the “shadow aspect” of the self. Jung said in his 1938 book Psychology and Religion: “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is… Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.”  In my experience, a fast-acting but short-lived way for me to deal with shadow aspects is either to ignore it (good modes for this are drinking heavily, shopping with money you don’t quite have) or project it. It’s hard for me to decide which of those behaviors is more dangerous and destructive. As usual, the hard way is the best way for shadow work. What works is to dive into the shadow, explore intensely our motivations, and to sit, to keep still, to be patient and to love.

It never seems surprising to me when I read about someone else’s experience of projection, but somehow it always seems inconceivable that one such as I could be participating in projection and not be aware of it. One of the myths I hold about myself is that because I’m sensitive and fairly intuitive, I’m 100% aware of my emotions and motivations at all times. But, in doing my own bit of shadow work, and asking myself why there are certain people who I get irritated with in 5 seconds, or people who I envy to an uncomfortable degree, or certain situations with Randy that create a truly insane amount of defensiveness on my part, I can see a deeply-trodden psychic path of projection. Jung wouldn’t be surprised of course–it’s our nature to keep strange, unexplainable impulses and desires hidden–it’s part of our ego’s survival strategy. But, as I’ve sensed, and my yoga studies have confirmed, the ego is dumb. Just straight up, it’s kind of a stupid animal and it really doesn’t know what’s best for you.

For instance, sometimes I feel disquieting envy. Let’s take my feelings about Oprah, for example. There’s something sneering in my attitude about Oprah–like she’s too low-brow for me to respect. It’s not like I spend a lot of time thinking about Oprah, so I have to ask why I feel like this public figure rubs me the wrong way.  I think it’s because actually feel threatened by a woman like Oprah–she represents a part of myself that is somewhat unexpressed. Oprah’s extremely successful, a very hard worker, she’s put her career first and she seems very self-sufficient. If I’m being honest, I can admit that I don’t feel very successful in my career, often times I don’t even feel very independent, and I feel sad about that and so I project my feelings of diminishment onto this public figure and feel vaguely irritated when ever I see O Magazine in the rack at the newsstand. You can see how I would avoid that kind of insight as long as I could–who wants to look at a part of themselves that they’re disappointed in? And that example is just about Oprah–imagine what it’s like when you start examining complicated feelings about your friends and family!

The shadow work goes in both directions too, because once I’ve realized that there’s a part of me that’s repressed, or that I’ve actually been hurtful to someone because of my unconscious motivations/feelings that I’ve acted on in an unenlightened way, I’m awash with guilt and self-hatred. These are two terrible poles to be caught between–either anger and hatred for a person you’re close to, or anger and hatred for yourself. I was thinking about this yesterday, when the words “Vengence is mine” popped into my head. The full King James Version reads:

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:19-21

(NB: I’m not really a Bible reader, but man, this stuff is just pure poetry sometimes) What this quote says to me is very clear: uncover your shadow. Don’t keep shoving it further and further into the darkness–feed the shadow, overcome evil with good. And if that doesn’t work–offer it up. Vengence is not yours. You’re not responsible for making anyone suffer! Not even yourself. You can put down that burden. Maybe it will turn out that you won’t even feel vengeful after you’ve given it up. Maybe it will turn out that forgiveness seems plausible–even possible.

Of course, shadows are actually beautiful when they’re transformed by light.


Bhakti

February 9, 2011
3 Comments

 

“Nothing evolves us

like love.”

–Hafiz

 

It’s February and our bodies are dense with cold and fatigue; though the sun is setting a little later every night, we are still deep in winter and most likely staying inside, maybe even turning inward. So I love that this month my yoga studio has decided the theme of February is Bhakti or devotion. I never feel less devoted to anything than while sliding down an icy sidewalk, sharp winding blasting my face, cursing my decision to move to New York instead of California . But as the winter solstice celebrates the beauty of light as it is disappearing, so February is a month where we celebrate the feeling of devotion–when we are least likely to feel it.

Bhakti yoga is a devotional path of yoga that began in opposition to the traditional Brahmanic path of yoga. Bhakti yoga transcended caste and education; its followers proclaimed that no one caste or social group was closer to God than any other. Followers of Bhakti yoga valued devotion and love over knowledge or jhana. This knowledge related particularly to the idea of karma and one’s relationship to God. For traditional Brahmans, karma must be “burned” away through lifetimes and only then can the individual become close to God. But for followers of Bhakti, God answers love with love, any time, day or night, good karma or bad.

But this blog isn’t only for people interested in God or believers. My belief of the moment is that “God” (I’ll explain the italics in a minute) is within. God is, to me, a symbol for all life–the light and the dark, everything that makes energy and creation. So, rather than the person “God” I used to think of as a wizened-but-tough old man with a beard, I think more of something ineffable; something like wind or light. And I’m playing with the idea that this energy is part of me–or as the followers of Bhakti would say, it is the divine light within.

I’ve been thinking about what got me on the yogic path and even writing this blog. It begins on a day when I was walking down Riverside on my way home, and there was a running monologue of self-criticism going on in my brain, as usual. I was living with Randy, but not yet married. There seemed to be a lot of bumps with us as we began to share our lives–I always seemed to be grasping for something that wasn’t there and then I was angry. So I’m walking along, saying awful things to myself, when all of a sudden I thought “I don’t need to say these awful things to myself anymore.” It was like I pushed the mute button during an obnoxious commercial; there was silence! Then I thought, “would I ever have said those awful things to my best friends? Would I ever make them feel so low and verminous?” Again, there was silence. “Well,” I said to myself “that’s ok, you’re forgiven.” And I kept walking. I almost burst out laughing at how simple it was–turn that voice off, forgive yourself, keep walking.

The next months brought a lot of opening, and a lot of softening. I had thought I was mad at Randy, I thought he was too hard on me; but then I had this tremendous realization that I was too hard on me. So any little thing he said became part of this horrible torture chamber in my mind about how I was not good enough. Maybe I had been at some point, like in infancy, but basically as soon as I was mobile, it was all downhill. Randy couldn’t convince me, no one could convince me that I was ok, and so I was hard, reactive, moody. I was, shall we say, le bitch.

This experience of learning to devote mental energy towards loving myself has so transformed my relationship to the world, I feel like a crazy convert that wants to hand out fliers in the subway station. And you know, there’s a part of me that’s embarrassed–really actually, deeply embarrassed–by the sentimentality of this “self-love.” But I think that’s because our society is embarrassed by it, so we’re conditioned to feel the same. Stuart Smalley, from SNL in the 90s, was hilarious, but you know what? He was right! We are all good enough, smart enough and, doggone it, people like us!

When we have love for ourselves–when we realize we are made of the same material, energy, substance of the divine–we are able to do great things. Since this month is also the month we celebrate Valentine’s Day, let me urge you to squrim through your embarrassment and take some time to practice bhakti towards yourself. My teacher in yoga tonight, a beautiful woman named Lauren, advised us that when we feel unloved, unworthy, when we feel stuck, a sense of permanent winter in our chest, there are three things to do: sing, dance and serve. As I wrote in a previous post, sometimes we must move out of our bodies to move into them again and singing, dancing and serving others is a way to move from our sometimes stingy minds to our generous hearts.

Hafiz, the great mystic of the 13th century writes:

“If God invited you to a party and said

‘Everyone in this ballroom tonight will be

my special guest…’

And Hafiz knows

There is no one in this world

Who

is not upon

his Jeweled

dance floor.”

With this in mind, I leave you with a song and a dance ( and a nod to the eternally glamorous Godard). Get out onto that jeweled dance floor with yourself!

 

 


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Resistance

January 22, 2011
4 Comments

Lord Hanuman

My dearest  friend posted on her wise and witty blog a question that I ask myself again and again: why do we resist what is good for us? The ‘good’ could mean anything: a diet, a new job, a new friend, a change of perspective, meditation, watching a different tv show, going to bed earlier, whatever. We bump against a possibility of something different, something that might be better for us, and we resist. Or I resist, anyway. It could be summed up in a phrase my mom says frequently:”the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.” Except in this case, though we know the devil we’re living with,  the one  “we don’t know” might not be a devil at all, it might be something lovely and enlightening. But we don’t know it, so it’s shrouded in darkness, unknown and terrifying.

So why do we (or just I) resist? Behind my resistance is fear. When I was younger, in my early twenties, I used to shake my head pityingly at people who confessed they were sometimes afraid to do things, or take action. “What in the world is there to be afraid of?!” my 20-year-old self would scoff. I believe it was only because I was so young that I could move to New York City so fearlessly, without worrying what I would do when I got there. I was, frankly, too stupid to be afraid. I wasn’t brave, I was just very inexperienced.

Now that I’m thirty, it’s as if all the fear I kept at bay throughout my early twenties has rushed to catch up with me and it hangs all over my thoughts like that Spanish moss you see on the trees down south. The more I try to banish this fear with my old bravado, the more it clings and the more I feel like retreating—resisting—and remaining in one, very safe, very familiar place.

Which brings me to Hanuman: my favorite personal God in Hinduism. There are many stories about Hanuman, an avatar of Shiva.  Hanuman is the god with the face of a monkey, (that’s a whole other story that I can’t get into here ) and is the most physically powerful of all the deities. The story that inspires me most about Hanuman is the story of his resuce of the Princess Sita, beloved of Rama. Rama (avatar of Brahma) was Hanuman’s best friend. When Sita was abducted by Ravana, an evil enemy, Rama told Hanuman he must leap across the ocean and to find her on the other side of the world. But when Hanuman reached the ocean, he was beset by fear that he wasn’t powerful enough to cross over. So Hanuman knelt down to meditate. It is this position we often see Hanuman represented. His great energy is drawn inward and is unmanifested. Hanuman meditates on his love and devotion to Rama and his heart fills with so much love that he becomes large and powerful and he jumps across the ocean in a single leap.

So what does this have to do with resistance? Not unlike another Biblical hero (or anti-hero?) Jonah, who resisted God’s call to go to Nineva and hopped a skipper to Tarshish instead, Hanuman is afraid. In fact, we might think of Jonah’s three-day weekend in the belly of the whale as symbolically similar to Hanuman’s kneeling meditation. Before taking action, we must acknowledge our resistance, our fear.

What I love so much about Hanuman is that he was afraid, but he did it anyway. The solution to Hanuman’s resistance and fear is not what I could have predicted, coming as I have from my Waspy, Puritan ancestry–the answer is not to scoff at fear, or shame it into submission. No, the solution is devotion. It’s love. Another version of the story tells us that Hanuman was cursed at a young age by some sages, that he would not know his own strength until others told him of it. When he reaches the ocean to rescue Sita, Hanuman’s companions tell him of his great strength and sing praise to him, and as they do so, he grows more and more powerful. So Hanuman is filled not only by his love for Rama (or Brahma, the universe, the spirit of creation, or whatever you want to call it) but also for love of himself as a powerful agent of that universe. He goes from resistance to surrender and becomes a part of the greater whole. He’s ‘going with the flow,’ if we want to get 1970s with it.

In my family, we frequently remind each other of a story about my sister, Beth, when she was 6 years old. As first grade approached, she got more and more anxious, until finally the night before her first day, she burst into tears. Through her sobs, my mom finally understood that Beth thought she was supposed to know how to read already and she was terrified at her lack of preparation. She was obviously relieved when my mom told that you go to first grade in order to learn how to read.

We tell each other this story in our family because all of us, even our all-mighty dad, have the tendency to believe we need to have learned everything or at least pretend we’ve learned everything before we begin.  Everyone in my family likes order, routine, tradition: my dad made pancakes every Saturday morning for my whole childhood. We vacationed on the same lake every summer for all 18 years that I lived at home. We are people who like familiarity.  I’m about to start yoga school at this amazing place and even though I can’t wait to start, I’m (unsurprisingly) constantly worried about everything I don’t know, everything I haven’t yet mastered.

Again and again in my life, I’ve been faced with trying new situations, jobs, people, places that I’ve resisted out of fear. Not only of the unknown, but like Hanuman, out of fear that I am not strong enough to bear the change. The happy news about life is that we are presented with these same challenges over and over again until we break through our resistance; so even though if that sounds like bad news because we can’t avoid challenges that make us afraid, it’s kind of good to know that we can’t ever really fail; we’ll find the same challenges appearing in our lives until we find away to meet them.

When I did another scary thing, applying for my MFA, I wrote my entrance essay quoting one of my favorite poems by Stanley Kunitz. These lines drift into my head often when I’m trying to both soften my resistence and gather my power for what’s coming ahead:

“…Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes. ”


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Heels Over Head

October 16, 2010
5 Comments

” I am weighed down with weakmindedness; I am confused and cannot understand my duty. I beg of you to say for sure what is right for me to do. I am your disciple. Please teach me, for I have taken refuge in you.” —Ajuna to Lord Krishna, 2:7 “The Living Gita”

Yesterday, I fell doing headstand in the middle of the floor in yoga class and it knocked loose a heap of emotional  trouble. I wasn’t physically hurt–my fall didn’t even leave a bruise–I was embarrassed (obviously) but once I’d recovered from that feeling (child’s pose is a good place for that) an awful, noxious feeling rose up in me: I had awakened the Voice–the bitchy, mean, neurotic editor of my thoughts who I thought I had silenced for good.

I’m on unfortunately good terms with the Voice, being a writer  it generally comes with the territory. The Voice has many names and faces–my thesis advisor at Hunter used to call it “the shit bird” who sits on your shoulder and whispers in your ear how shitty all your writing is. Calling it out and naming it is so important because if you don’t, you won’t recognize it as a character–you’ll simply believe those are your thoughts and that they’re true. This may sound really obvious to the more enlightened out there, but it was a huge revelation for me when I realized I could tell the “shit bird” to be silent, not just when I’m trying to write, but anytime I wanted. Really, why was I listening to the voice that was telling me I was a failure, and that if I couldn’t produce a work of genius I would have no excuse for my overly-emotional personality? Around this time last year, I decided to employ the yogic practice of replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. For every negative thought I had about myself, my mantra in reply was “I forgive myself.” So what if everything about me was awful according to the Voice? If I could forgive myself an infinite number of times, I could always be back in a place of love.

So what happened yesterday? I was practicing with one of my favorite teachers, Francesca, and she showed us how to get set up for headstand in the middle of the floor. “Don’t try to get up all the way,” she said, “the point is to feel in your body the correct posture for eventually coming up.” I’ve been working on headstand and headstand since probably June, and I felt impatient and excited about working on the pose—I wanted to succeed, I wanted to win headstand practice!! I got set up and inched my feet off the floor. I could feel that with just a little push, I’d be off the ground and soaring up into headstand. I also knew that the “little push” was muscle development that I didn’t quite have yet. Basically, your core has to be strong enough to lift your lower body towards the sky. Not wanting to acknowledge that I wasn’t quite there yet, I pushed off the floor with my left foot and put all my weight into my poor triceps. I heard Francesca say, “Oh! No kicking!” and as she said it, I felt my feet go way over my head and then I crashed to the floor.

Francesca came over and helped me up and then into the pose as it should be. It seemed a simple lesson–“don’t kick up into headstand!”–but my fall had woken the Voice who began informing me about how egotistical I was to try and get up in the first place, how I’ll never be any good at yoga, probably won’t ever become a yoga teacher, I’m too mean-spirited and competitive anyway to be able to lead others towards peace….blah blah. I’ll spare you the rest. The general message received was: “you suck.”

I came home upset, which also made me mad because the Voice was busy telling me how weak and irrational it was to be so upset. “You’re overreacting,” the voice sneered. I went for my best weapon: a hot shower, cottony pjs, and a nap. When I woke up, I felt calmer and began to look at my feelings in that vague, fuzzy after-nap way that feels so much easier.

I’ve been so focused on training my body to become a yoga teacher someday, that I’ve lost sight of the value of a “beginner’s mind.” When you’re a beginner, nothing is humilating because you’re just learning, the ego can sit quietly outside the classroom. It’s true, I have been practicing yoga seriously for about 6 months now, but there’s no due date for headstand, there’s no cut-off time for learning, and eventually, succeeding.

Patanjali says: “Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness.” Notice P. says “for a long time” he doesn’t say “for six months.” When I see how Randy plays his guitar—he rolls out of bed, eats a slapdash breakfast and then goes to his guitar–I see practice well attended to for a long time, without break, and in all earnestness. He has been practicing for 20 years.

So I had packed up my “forgiveness” mantra because I thought the Voice was gone–but since it piped up its screechy little voice, it’s time to practice again. I forgive myself for pushing too hard in headstand, I forgive myself for feeling stupid about it, I forgive myself for losing my beginner’s mind, I forgive myself for impatience, for criticism,  for judgement. I forgive everything.

Now I want to take the stance of Arjuna, who has taken refuge in his teacher, the divine being Krishna. Arjuna has discovered already that it’s ok to fall in headstand. This is the first part of surrender–the moment when we admit we are “confused.” This realization should not bring up feelings of shame that we don’t know all the answers already.

There are many other steps on the yogic path. But I am at this step. I may be here for “a long time,” as Patanjali says. So, quiet Voice: Om Shanti (be at peace).


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Be Here Now

October 1, 2010
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It’s been two months since my last post–in the time since then, I’ve gotten married, and my reasoning about letting the blog languish was the phrase “I’ll get back to it after the wedding,” and it then it became “after the honeymoon” and then I realized I just  wasn’t writing and there was no helpful phrase to rationalize it. My old friend perfectionism had clamped its jaws down on me and I couldn’t write because “it had to be really good.” Then I was very grateful to myself of 4 months ago, who had the foresight to predict this would happen, and so named the blog “Practice” to release me from that particular prison.

Perfectionism takes us out of process–and this is a problem for me because life is a process, and when we set artificial goals of perfection, and deny the reality of process, much hysteria and bewilderment ensues when life continues to remain flawed. Case in point: my wedding.

My wedding, actually, from my perspective was perfect. It was so perfect, in fact, that I started to feel panicky as it was going on, because I could feel that in a few hours it would be over. Already I was resisting the reality of process. As we sat down to dinner, I reached for my wine glass and said dramatically, “I need to start drinking really fast!” (My reasoning was, if I was tipsy, I would be immune to these feelings of sadness, or feelings of being overwhelmed at how deeply I was feeling my life at that moment.) But my sister, sitting next to me, put her hand on my glass and said with equal intensity, “No. You need to be here now.”  It’s not like my sister and I are always speaking to each other like enlightened sages. We started laughing actually at the way she had said “Be Here Now” with such preposterous drama . But her point was made (this is the nice thing about sisters: we rarely have to explain to each other what we mean, shorthand almost always suffices). “Look at the flowers” she said, pointing to the blue hydrangeas and wine-colored roses on the table. Though much of my wedding is a blur in my memory (that’s why you should always get a wedding video) this exchange is vivid in my mind: the colors of the flowers on the table,the crisp white of the tablecloth, the glow of candles, the pink of my sister’s dress, and my awareness of my new husband on my right, chatting with his brother. I’m so grateful to Beth that I have one very clear memory of being present at my wedding.

Wonderful things can happen when we engage in process–such as being in the present moment. But sometimes, for whatever reason (usually pain or fear of pain) we resist process and want to go straight to perfection. In my last post, I wrote about transformative fire. In no way did I exaggerate AT ALL the pain of transformative fire! I think I was just unsure how long transformative fire lasts. In my imagination, Randy and I passed through a ring of fire on our wedding day that changed us forever. And of course, the change took place in the 20 minutes of our wedding ceremony. After that, we would feel no pain–already transformed! But as my friend Fred pointed out, people who are actually in the pain of transformative fire, don’t usually write about it so lucidly.

Transformation, my transformation from one stage of life to the next, is taking a lot longer than 20 minutes. Maybe this is why I haven’t written in two months–the lucidity thing. My experience in getting married is that it required something of my old attachments to identity and to fantasy to die–and this process is not so rapid in my case and not so pleasant.

Bo Forbes, in his article “The Awakening” in the Sept. issue of Yoga Journal discusses different situations that can cause a spiritual awakening and the five “kieshas” or afflictions that can attend awakening. The fourth kiesha, “Abhinivesha” is the fear of death and clinging to life, which stalls an awakening or transformation. Abhinivesha is my particular bugaboo at the moment–I find myself longing for the past. I’ve always been compulsively nostalgic, but now I want to stop the video of my life at the moment of my wedding, and then rewind it and live it all over again up to that point. I am clinging, and it feels good to cling, the way it sometimes feels good to pick at scabs or bite your nails or other little habits that are actually not helpful.

I can remember my past, and cherish it, but I can’t lug around my old identity anymore. Process means that we keep the video of our lives running, cast off abhinivesha, and move towards rebirth. Acoording to yogic philosophy, this awakening happens over and over again in our life time as we continually are given the chance to engage in process and uncurl our fingers from the tight grip on the feelings, identities, pleasures, or even pain, that we want to take with us.

Who will I be, now that I’m Alison Rogers Napoleon? The question still causes ripples of real fear through my being. Fortunately, I have a friend here in the dark: my husband. Being present, living in the process, means that I will have a living marriage—an imperfect, but authentic partnership that will change me. Here goes.


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Into the Transformative Fire

July 19, 2010
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“Glory is the sun too, and the sun of suns,

and down the shafts of his splendid pinions

run tiny rivers of peace.

Most of his time, the tiger pads and slouches in a burning

peace.

And the small hawk up high turns round on the slow pivot of

peace.

Peace comes from behind the sun, with the peregrine falcon,

and the owl.

Yet all of these drink blood.” –D.H. Lawrence

My favorite yoga teacher, Mary Dana, at Life in Motion studio, gave a brief talk about Kali on Wednesday. I won’t pretend that I’m qualified to give any kind of detailed description of all the multi-valent significance of Kali in Hinduism or Indian history–but I know that depictions of Kali are scary, and they are meant to scare us:

In this illustration, Kali is shown as intoxicated by her murderous spree of killing demons in battle, and has been dancing uncontrollably, until finally she realizes she is stepping on her husband, Lord Shiva (woops). The symbolic representation of Kali in contact with Shiva shows their abstract, complementary natures. In Tantric yoga philosphy, Shiva represents divine consciousness, while Kali represents action/energy or “shakti.” These two elements cannot exist without each in the universe, but rather act together as a powerful dynamic.

My teacher, Mary Dana, said, “sometimes you are in a painful situation and you try to run from it, only to find Kali around the next corner, staring you down.”  As I practiced, I was reminded (as I always am, about 40 minutes in) that yoga is sometimes painful. It’s painful for your muscles to be torn up so that they will grow back stronger; the logical parts of our brains tell us to step away from pain–or run from it. We can’t help it; it’s a survival instinct.

So what happens if we ignore that impulse and remain in pain? Of course, there are good pains and bad pains–it’s never a good idea to hold a pose if you’re ignoring one of those bad pains that comes from doing a pose incorrectly. But the good pain–the kind of pain that comes from hard work, or from being brave, what happens then? We are transformed. Why then the deliberately scary imagery? Prayers to Kali from 16th century saint, Ramprasad Sen, offer no comfort:

Men call you merciful, but there is no trace of mercy in you, Mother.
You have cut off the heads of the children of others, and these you wear as a garland around your neck.
It matters not how much I call you “Mother, Mother.” You hear me, but you will not listen.

Certainly, Kali is not for the sentimentally-minded. You might imagine Kali as a brash, no-nonsense, straight-shooter, tough girl; she might hurt your feelings, but she’s not going to lie to you. Pain is pain–wouldn’t it be worse if we pretended it wasn’t? Whenever I’m at the doctor’s about to have a shot, I really appreciate the head’s up that it’s going to hurt. I still remember when I got a tetanus shot by my dad (a doc) and I asked him if it was going to hurt, and he said, “Nah, not really.” And then proceeded to shoot what felt like fiery acid into my veins. Kali would not have done that. She would have said. “Yeah, this is gonna hurt like hell.”

Kali is a destroyer–of illusions, of attachments–her destruction is for the good. But it hurts. “Transformative Fire” is a phrase often used in yoga to describe what we’re about on our mats–burning away the strong bonds that link us to desire. It’s not an accident that it’s called transformative “fire” rather than, say “transformative water”or “transformative cocktails”–both of which can do the trick in either baptism or happy hour, but they don’t carry the same implications of growth, and they don’t offer the same association with pain.

All this seems very strange to write about when I’m getting married in just 33 days. When Mary Dana talked about Kali, she talked about running from Kali when we’re in a situation like a break-up or a job change, or some very obviously painful place that seems to offer no succour. Yet, my upcoming marriage is perhaps the most deliberately transformative choice I’ve made in my life. To link my life to another’s for the rest of my earthly days is perhaps the bravest, and the scariest, action I have taken. Weddings these days have a lot of sentimental bullshit attached to them that obscure the deeply transformative fire that a person enters when they agree to marry. And yes, there is pain when we enter into that transformative fire.

The word “Kali” is related to the word “Kala” in Sanskrit, meaning time. “Kali” means time, but it also means “beyond time.” As time, or Kala, works in our lives moving us out of childhood into adulthood, and out of adulthood into death, Kali works to transform those parts of ourselves that are beyond time. Though Kali represents death, she also represents deathlessness because, as her image with Shiva suggests,  consciousness and energy are eternal qualities of the universe.

Though Randy doesn’t believe in deathlessness, it is his “deathless” qualities that I’m about to marry–his beautiful spirit and his generous heart–those qualities that the image of Kali suggests will outlive time. Neither of us will be quite the same after our marriage; we will have become something else slightly different than our old, unattached selves. For me, this means allowing Kali to burn away my attachment to my old, selfish way of doing things, or my attachment to thinking of myself as a child, when–let’s face it–I’m nearly 30.

This rite of passage embodies what I love best about yoga, and what D.H. Lawrence is articulating in his poem, “Glory” : that there is union in all things. And not just happy, let’s-all-hold-hands union, but union meaning the yoking of opposites. There is light in the dark, there is death within life.

Jai Kali Ma!


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In and Out of the Body

July 2, 2010
3 Comments

In E.M. Forester’s novel, A Room With a View, one of the wisest characters (Mr. Emerson) says “I only wish that poets would say this too: love is of the body; not the body but of the body. Ah! the misery that would be saved if we confessed that!”

Of course, Forester was writing about the prudery of the Victorians, which I think we’ve begun to shake off in 2010–at least I hope no one is still putting a skirt around their piano legs for fear of titillating their guests. Yet the words of Mr. Emerson also speak to a general problem (a Western problem, I think, or perhaps just an American one) of not properly inhabiting our bodies. We certainly (I certainly) know how to obsess about our bodies–weight, physical appearance, etc. But I think being “of the body” is a slightly different mode of existence.

I recently took a class called “Creativity Boot Camp” with Julia Cameron. And while the class was totally embarrassing and sad in a 70s, seashell-collage-art kind of way, it did get me thinking about the relationship between the body and creativity. One of our assignments was to go for 30 minute walks twice a week, alone. Julia’s theory was the more we were engaged with our body, the easier we would find our writing assignment. I just did my usual 15 minute walks to the yoga studio, which I do alone anyway, and practiced my usual amount, which is 3x a week. But I did notice, when I finally began a writing project, I had more stamina for it–I could write for hours instead of the usual tortured 20 minutes. And afterwards, I had the same kind of calm euphoria I have after yoga class.

I’m not drawing a literal parallel here. I’ve been practicing yoga for years and also been blocked as a writer. But, I’ve also recently become much more serious about yoga, and yoga more than anything else in my life, emphasizes the importance of inhabiting your body. The complexity and beauty of this idea is that yoga asks you to be in your body so that you can eventually move out of your body– through meditation. Releasing tension, stretching, strengthening, all of these postures were developed to help the person learn to sit still. This stillness though, it must be filled with peace, with compassion, and that can only happen with a certain amount of comfort in, and acceptance of, the body.

What a glaring contrast to certain Christian faiths that tell their believers that they must divorce their bodies, abandon them, abuse them, deny them. There was a church we sometimes went to when I was a kid, and it was an old church, very beautiful, but the pews were so hard and they slanted downwards, so that there was no way to be comfortable when you sat through the service; either you were jamming your backside as hard as you could against the seat to keep from slipping, or you were slowly falling forward and using your feet as leverage to remain upright. The message was subtle, but it was clear: your body does not deserve comfort while it searches for a spiritual life. Your body is not invited to the spiritual party.

As Americans, we are haunted still by Puritanism, which instructed us to shame the body to glorify the soul. Rebelling against that, to me, is pure sensuality, it’s being simply the body, only the body. So, we have a lot of excess now in America, sensual excess, sexual excess, material excess. Rebelling against those Puritanical ideas still doesn’t help us inhabit the body; it’s just another way of misusing the body.

I’m still not sure what the connection is between creativity and the body, because as a writer, I really only need my brain and my hands, but I think the relationship is similar to the body-mind connection in yoga. You move in and out of your body–sometimes you need to move more deeply into your bodily experience so that you can move out of it. Sometimes I need to take a walk and breathe before I can leave my body, as it were, and inhabit only the words that I’m writing.

And poets, actually, are some of the rare folks who do know that love is of the body, and that we are not merely our bodies, but we are of our bodies–and how beautiful that is. Walt Whitman, smack in the middle of Victorian America, wrote this:

“I sing the body electric,

The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,

They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,

And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul…

…the circling rivers the breath, and breathing it in and out,

The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward

toward the knees,

The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the

marrow in the bones,

The exquisite realization of health;

O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only,

but of the soul,

O I say now these are the soul!”



            

		 
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A Little Gratitude in my Attitude

June 23, 2010
4 Comments

I was riding the subway the other day, it was about noon, the car was half-empy, and there was a street musician playing the bongo drums. When the doors opened and we newcomers sat down, he began a speech he’d obvioulsy been giving all day, and it was vaguely hostile in its urging passengers to enjoy his music. He tapped a little randomly on his bongos, admonished those of us who were still listening to our ipods or absorbed in our books, and then he asked, “Hey! Who’s happy to be alive today? Who’s happy to be alive? Put your finger in the air!” Everyone ignored him, except for this shabby, somewhat toothless homeless guy sitting two seats away from me. He put his finger right up in the air and smiled. The bongo player snorted “just this guy? He’s the only one whose happy?” He shook his head, ashamed of us, who wouldn’t show our gratitude for life.

I left the subway smiling in spite of myself. After the debacle of the $60 giveaway, I’ve been less open to the cajoling of street people. I didn’t like being chastized by the bongo drums player, who frankly had no buisness subjecting us to his “musicianship” on the drums and then excoriating us for not wanting to participate in his show. But the homeless man, whose path I followed by chance, made me smile. He was balding, and thin the way only very ill people or street people can be, his shoes were too big and he looked dirty. He shambled along with something like a spring in his step, and I kept smiling thinking of his crooked little finger held up, annoucing, yessir, he was happy to be alive. Whatever kind of a sufferring he was going through, he was still gonna hold up that finger.

I’m thinking about gratitude, partly because my life is pretty much a total dream right now, but also because I’m storing up this feeling for later on, when it’s not so dreamy and I feel angry/irritated/sad instead of grateful. In my yoga practice, lately I’ve felt grateful that I’m strong, that I have a healthy body. This is something  I’ve never thought about before. Often I just feel pissed in yoga: it hurts, I can’t do it, I still have 45 mins left in class. I’m thirsty. But I’m trying something different now; I’m trying to shift the complaint into gratitude.

I know it sounds extremely Oprah magazine, (which I kind of love, btw) but gratitude, I’m discovering, is essential for living in the present. Let’s pretend for a second (a scary second) that there’s no afterlife, no reincarnation, no creative force who loves his/her/its creation. There’s just this, this one life, and then…nothing. Suddenly, being hot and tired in yoga doesn’t feel like a drag: it feels like a gift. Same thing with rain, which I also hate, or long car rides, or washing the dishes or any other million activities that I generally lump under the category of “drudgery.” If the choice is between being alive and loading the dryer with wet clothes, or being dead, I’m going to go ahead and choose loading the dryer. And I’m going to love loading that dryer, because, after this–who knows?

As a kid, I was raised Christian, and I really dug the idea of heaven. Who doesn’t? I dug it so much I kind of couldn’t wait to shuffle off this mortal coil and go cloud-diving with the angels and sit on God’s lap for eternity. I know people thought I was strange, even a bit other-wordly, but I think I was like most human beings: I was just looking for the next big thing. Now as an adult, I’m questioning the idea of heaven, of an afterlife, and I’m trying to get comfy with the idea of not knowing what comes after. If we can’t know that, then all we have is the present.

Two days ago, I assigned my creativity writing students to read the short story “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin. In the story, the narrator’s little brother has been picked up for heroin possession and the narrator  struggles to understand what drove his brother to start taking drugs in the first place. He speaks with one of Sonny’s junkie friends in an early scene in the story:

‘”Tell me,” I said at last, “why does he want to die? He must want to die, he’s killing himself, why does he want to die?”

He looked at me in surprise. He licked his lips. “He don’t want to die. He wants to live. Don’t nobody want to die, ever.” ‘

We find all kinds of ways to be out of the present moment, out of sufferring, but the truth is, we all want to live, and living happens in the now. That homeless man on the train, maybe he knows more about coming close to death than I, or anyone on the subway car did that day; maybe that’s why he raised his finger so cheerfully. Possibly though, he’s just living in the now, and he was grateful to be on the train that morning, grateful for the colors of the subway seats, grateful for the feel of plastic under him, grateful for the funny bongo man playing drums, asking him to raise his hands. When he left the car, bouncing along, maybe he was grateful for the subway stairs, the damp coolness of the corridor, the first sight of of blue sky and then feeling the full heat of the sun as he exits, moving on down the sidewalk, toward more life.

So I’ll put the bongo guy’s question out there for you (minus the hostility): Whose happy to be alive today?

Raise those fingers in the air!


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