Human Again

Lights low, class has begun.

“Close your eyes. Settle into your space. Draw attention to your breath. Let go of the day.”

The air breathes of softness and solitude. The sunlight gently shifts westward.

SLAM!!!!

Scurry.

Shuffle shuffle.

SLAM!!!!

He prowls into the studio, panting and sweating. Drops a wallet and some keys on the floor. They pierce the silence with an aggressive jangle. He slaps his mat down and peers at me with wild and weary eyes.

“Have a seat,” I smile. We’re just getting started. Close your eyes. Focus on your breath.” I say this with an exaggerated tone of invitation, knowing full well his mind hears a command.

An agitated exhale stutters from his mouth. He twitches; knees jerk from discomfort. His arm flails out, the water bottle spills. He laps it up apologetically with his sleeve, swivels to scratch an itch, and sits back down with a slumped spine.

“Feel free to settle on a blanket if it’s more comfortable.” He doesn’t bother. His lack of response screams belligerence and apathy. I can feel the room of closed eyes and placid faces throw scorn at his scuffling. The space around him bends and retracts, casting shadows of frenzy that pulse aggressively at everyone in the room, especially me.

“Now, slowly open your eyes, but keep your gaze soft. Staying seated, inhale, sweep your arms to the ceiling; exhale, lower them to your lap. Inhale, reach for the sky, taking up space; exhale, float your hands to the floor.”

His limbs move in jagged undulations. Like wind-whipped waves, they scatter the pattern of tranquility that unfolds across this sea of moving bodies.

“Transitioning to your hands and knees, arch your spine up and down. Coordinate your breath and movement.” The room pulses with awakened bodies, cracks, pops, and swells in the sounds of salient release.

But his exhales are sighs of self-defeat. His body moves him like a storm moves across the ocean, whipping and thrashing all the contents around, stirring up soot and silt until it forms a cloudy froth at the edges of his mouth. There’s a deep dent in his forehead where the left brow dips toward the bridge of his nose in angry defiance. A gesture seared into the folds of his skin.

“Relax your neck. Relax the muscles of your face. Step back into downward dog.”

As I lead the class from seated to standing, we get playful.

“Flip-flop your body. As you twist from left to right, let your arms dangle and sway at your sides, like empty coat sleeves. Get loose. Get light. Shake your hands. Shake your feet.” Wiggles become giggles and the room booms with big-belly laughter.

I glance in his direction. There’s the hint of a smirk becoming a smile. It’s working.

“Soften those arms. Be playful in these postures.”

As we move from twists to triangle pose, twirling, tumbling, turning inside out, his scoffs become laughs and his grunts less like groans. Inch by inch a weight lifts from his shoulders. Layer by layer, the hostility cracks, peels off, and blows away.

“Let go completely.” I speak to the tempo of melting icicles, each word drip-dropping into pools of warm liquid, bathing my students in the free formlessness that is relaxation.

“Now it’s time for savasana, corpse pose.” They lie down settling for these few moments, like tumbleweeds between gusts of wind.

I watch with intent curiosity as his body tenses and relaxes in cycles, one moment surrendering to the weight of gravity, the next moment tightening protectively. Out of habit, his body retroactively grips against the vulnerability of letting go. Eventually, his movement ceases altogether.

Corpse pose.

I always wondered about this name. It seems so morbid for a practice like yoga that’s all about embracing the fullness of life…

…until now.

Seeing his formerly ferocious body lying limp and lifeless on the floor brings new meaning to corpse pose. Some energies must die so that others may be born.

“Slowly begin to deepen your breath. Start to wiggle your fingers. Start to wiggle your toes. Gradually make your way back to seated.”

We end with a few moments of meditation, soaking in the benefits of our practice. Afterwards, amidst the sounds of mats returning to their zippered bags and feet shuffling softly out the door, he tiptoes toward me, his face all glow and smiles.

“How do you feel?” I inquire.

With a short pause and a serene expression, he parts his lips and speaks.

“I’m human again.”

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The Eye Inside

Last weekend, a student asked me a question: “In my home yoga practice, how do I know if I’m doing the pose correctly? Do I need a mirror?”

Reading Rumi, I came across an answer:

“Close both eyes to see with the other eye.”

A home practice will help you discover your internal mirror, which you can access anywhere and everywhere.

*            *            *

In class, I’m sweating. I’m struggling.

“Hold warrior II for ten deep breaths.” Fighting fatigue, my mind is clouded. The teacher’s invitation becomes a command. Before my body has a chance to settle into what this pose feels like now, my mind wanders to the memory of yesterday’s successfully steady hold in warrior II. Expectations explode.

Today, tired but stubborn, I hesitate to hesitate when my legs are aching and my breath is jagged. Yesterday this was easy. Why the change? I’m comparing myself to myself again.

Too often our experience of the present is misinformed by what we think we know from the past.

Pause. Take a breath. Close your eyes. Look inside.

Investigating, I inch my way into warrior II. Watching. Breathing. My quads are throbbing. My hunger pains roar. This is too much today. My sense of incompetence rises. The critic in me scolds.

Pause. Take a breath. Close your eyes. Look inside.

Tuning out my surroundings, I listen to my body and let go of the lesson. Resting in downward dog, my mind wanders home.

What I like about my home practice is the solitude. At home, away from competition triggers, away from someone else’s eye, I learn to listen to myself, to relax when I’m tired, to challenge myself without pushing. I feel the freedom to go deeper as I please or to back off if I want.

“Five more deep breaths in warrior II.” The room is panting. The windows are steaming. Even the walls are dripping with liquidized exhales. Knees quiver. Necks twitch with tension.

I fold peacefully into child.

Though the impulse to push still surfaces, my home yoga practice has helped me learn to cultivate a different approach. I’m not moving to the tune of other people’s voices in my head. I’m not propelled by an ego-driven voice in my head. Instead, I’m guided by my body’s internal compass. From this space, I find it easier to move into the present without fear of losing what was, without projecting what’s to come. Awakening to a wider spectrum of sensations beyond just pain and pleasure, I begin to develop my internal alignment indicator, my inner mirror. What feels right is right.

Letting go of what I think I need to achieve, I can embrace what I’m achieving.

*            *            *

Next day, off the mat and en route to work, I see my reflection in the front door window: wool coat, lined pants, a scarf, hat, and gloves. Before going out, I hesitate, tilt my head to the side, and listen to her question.

“Do you want to know the temperature?” She pushes the curtain aside. Icy spirals have danced up the glass, barely leaving a peephole to look out from. I can’t see where the white lace curtain ends and the frost begins.

“No thanks. I’ll know the temperature when I go outside and feel the wind on my face.”

She smiles warmly, looks at the thermometer and frenetically rubs her arms with their opposite hands in a gesture that says more than she could ever say in words about a frozen winter morning.

Smiling, I exit.

Snow is falling. Silence, except the scrape of shovels on pavement. The air tastes like freezer-burnt berries. A little bitter. A little sweet. Wind whips my cheeks. Blood travels backward from my extremities to my heart where it pools protectively.

“Cold Monday morning, eh?” He takes a moment to wipe the wet from his face, looks me in the eye, and then pans his gaze to survey the whitewashed landscape.

I smile hello.

A squirrel scampers across the sidewalk. I take my first step into its footprints. Close my eyes, feel my breath hesitate to let the air in. Delight in the memory of making snow angels. Crunch, crunch go my boots. Nose drips. Toes grip. I lick my lips to feel them.

10 degrees? Below zero? Winter? Monday? Friday? Morning?

I choose to see with that other eye.

The eye that looks more than it sees.

That tastes more than it eats.

That learns more than it labels.

That lets go in order to embrace.

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Off the mat and into the office

“What are you doing?” she asks with more curiosity than reproach. I pivot on my back foot and relax into warrior II. As my front quad bends deeper, my torso lowers, and my hands release a stack of files on her desk.

“All finished,” I exhale with a smile. Returning to my desk, I prepare to file.

Inhale, rise up. Exhale, goddess pose. Inhale, lift the papers to the ceiling. Exhale, put them down. Twist to the right, grab a pen. Twist to the left, grab a paperclip. Inhale, staple. Exhale, stash away. I file to the rhythm of my internal beat, taking my yoga practice off the mat and into the office.

My cubicle neighbor turns her head to the right to catch a glimpse of my sun salute stapling. I think that’s the first time I’ve seen her head move all morning. She tilts it back to down more “amp.”

Yes amp, the latest coffee substitute. It’s pepsi with extra pep, coca-cola on cocaine, the pen-ultimate 9-5 energizer. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a warning label on the can near “not a substitute for infant formula” saying something to the effect of “side-effects may include increased heart palpitations and sweaty palms.”

Her hands shake and shiver as she chucks the empty can and resumes typing at warp speed. Her eyes are sunken. Her hair thin and dry. She’s exhausted, emaciated. Strung out on stress. She is the epitome of the overworked, overlooked office automaton relying on artificial energy to get the job done.

It’s not her fault.

I walk over to the water cooler, passing four, no five jars of Christmas candy discards. The coffee pot is stained from overuse, the kitchen fridge stocked with frozen lunches. Everything and everyone is vacuum packed for efficiency. No one leaves for lunch. The sun rises and falls before they have a chance to notice it.

“OK. I’m off to lunch,” I say with a jingle.

“Going out? It’s so cold!”

“I know, but the fresh air is energizing.” She pauses to ponder that and eyes her amp with suspicion.

“Have fun?” I begin my midday meditation, which consists of a ritualized walk around the parking lot. I pass by the curtained windows and peer at each worker inside, glued to the computer, dazed and delirious. This is a temp job for me, but these people have to live every day in this treadmill of tasks.

How can I help?

I ponder this question for my last few rotations and then return to my desk with a rosy nose and a resolution.

“Well, how is it out there?”

“Invigorating!”

I immediately move into my filing flow, stirring up energy and goodwill for myself and my coworkers. Inhale, sweep the letter up. Exhale, hinge and fold it. Inhale, open the envelope. Exhale, seal with glue.

She chuckles at my seemingly strange habits. Though I may be perceived as the office oddball, I get the job done efficiently, and, most importantly, free of anger and tension. I continually try to turn my tasks into yoga, always breathing, always bending. I hope to inspire my coworkers to respire.

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Stillness in Motion

Part of developing a home practice involves understanding where your home is.

Not the back corner of the studio.

Not the spot in the front by the wall.

Inside.

Through breath (prana) in yoga postures (asana), you can create the stabilizing peace that guides you to find your core, your inner observer of experience. When you find your home inside, it’s a liberating place of open spaciousness where you can access compassion, appreciation, generosity, and patience.

Traveling helps you discover this place inside, and once you do, you can do yoga anywhere.

I take my practice with me everywhere I go.

Trains, planes, cars, boats.

Escalators and elevators.

India, Japan, France, Los Angeles, New York.

It’s challenging to find peace in certain environments, but the ultimate goal is to try and connect to your core in an unfamiliar and sometimes unsettling place.

Stillness in motion.

You don’t have to travel far.

On the bus going to work.

In line at the grocery store.

Walking down a bustling street.

At a festival.

In a cubicle.

Yoga means union. When you learn how to fully integrate the different aspects of your identity in different places and different spaces, the world becomes less frightening because wherever you go, you’re always home.

It starts by taking a moment in all the craziness to connect to your breath.

 

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Coming Home

Last week I crossed paths with a fellow yogi on his way to the same vinyasa flow class I was heading to. I hadn’t seen him in a while, so I paused to inquire about his wellbeing.

“Glad to be here!” he exclaimed with utter exhaustion. “I’ve been traveling a lot. I haven’t done yoga in weeks. This class is going to kill me!”

I took a breath in empathetic agreement, and we proceeded to the studio together. As I unrolled my mat on the floor, his words reverberated…I’ve been traveling…I haven’t done yoga…this class…kill me… From the looks on most peoples’ faces at the start of class, I knew my friend was not alone in his feelings.

WAIT! There’s something really wrong with this picture, I thought. First, if yoga is a way of living beyond just physical movement through postures, why do we think we can’t maintain our practice with busy schedules and travel plans? And second, if yoga encourages us to cultivate compassion for ourselves, why are we entering class with the defeatist and self-sabotaging attitude that it’s going to kill us (and the implication here being that we deserve to suffer because we haven’t had time to practice)?

“Inhale, sweep your arms up to the sky. Exhale, swan-dive forward. Inhale, lengthen your spine. Exhale, step back into downward dog.” As class commenced, I tried to let go of these philosophical ruminations about yoga and focus on the present moment.

But ever so often throughout class, my mind wandered—followed by my gaze—over to my friend. Pools of sweat collected around his mat. His face was beet red. Is he breathing, I thought? Why is he pushing himself so hard?

“Pause for five deep breaths in warrior II.” My pulsing left quad brings me back to the present moment. “Pivot on the back foot. Step into downward dog. Relax your neck. Relax the muscles of your face.”

Along with my jaw, my mind softens to memories of the past year in Japan. Living in a country totally different from my home forced me to create a new home in my yoga. Every day I came to my mat to work out my culture shock, my physical reactions to foreign foods, and the stress of a new job. I came home to a powerful personal yoga practice, an inner home that transcended location and enabled me to travel, yet stay centered.

“Ok. Changing gears here. Let’s work our core a little.” Snap. I’m back out of my reverie. I look over at my friend. He’s doing voluntary pushups while everyone else is resting in child pose. His hands are shaking. The veins on his neck are swelling with tension. I feel a strong urge to relieve him from competing with himself. How? How can I teach him to listen to his fatigued body rather than fight it with his mind?

How did I learn?

Between boat pose and plow, I give myself permission to pursue this important point. I think back to the end of my time in Japan. After nearly a year without going to yoga studios or downloading online classes, my home practice blossomed. I learned how to feel at ease in my body as well as in a plane or on a bus. I learned to listen to myself. It liberated me from my attachment to a space, a class, or a set of expectations about what yoga entails. Though I’ve been teaching yoga for nearly 5 years, I finally became my own teacher in a far-off little town in Asia.

Every day my home practice teaches me how to give myself what I need, rather than what someone else thinks I need. It’s different each day, and I honor the change.

“And now lower down into savasana, relaxation pose.” For some of us, this is the one time we give ourselves permission to just be. For others, like my friend, savasana means something else.

He picks up his mat and quietly shuffles out the door, whispering, “Nice to see you. Gotta catch a plane to London.” With a sympathetic smile, I let out a sigh. No time to tell him he has time to practice yoga. He needs to come home, to allow himself to relax and find inner peace.

And so do I.

Resolving to develop a home practice workshop for travelers, busy high achievers, and over-thinkers alike, I let go of these incessant thoughts and, once again, return to the present moment.

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