Tag Archives: yoga

Like Water

“The river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and there is only the present time for it, not the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future….” –Siddhartha

Years ago, I spent a few December days in Laguna Beach, diving through winter waves, immersed in what felt like the beginning of everything. I was full of energy, and I would wake up early to walk down and watch the sunrise on the beach. It was always dark and always cold, and I carried a blanket and coffee, snuggling into a little indented sand nest to watch the water as the first light reflected like an hallucination on the horizon. On the second morning, as I was watching the sun hover, I saw something leap from the water. I got up to get a closer look, and several more creatures surfaced from the sea line, cavorting through the waves. When I saw flippers and flukes, I knew these were dolphins at play, plunging and rising, breaching and striking, looping like a dream, or an omen.

A couple months ago, I invited a shamanic healer into my home. She brought flowers and herbs, branches and twigs, and she chanted through ritual movement in a Limpia ceremony, releasing whatever block impedes change. When she left, I followed her instructions to bury the remains and wait for growth.

This week, I sat in a women’s moon circle, and I attended my first private session with a spiritual adviser.

I sound like a woman in crisis.

My documentary filmmaker friend says that erotic thrillers are about women in crisis. He says Americans are uncomfortable watching women on screen unless they’re sexualized, but that’s not really what these films are really about.

Americans are uncomfortable with a lot of things.

I like to think I’m a person who is comfortable with discomfort, likely because I’ve lived long enough to know all sensations pass. When I run a trail near my house in the early mornings, particularly when its cold out, or on days I haven’t slept, or when the voices in my head are angry and unkind about my decision to get up early to run in the dark, I close my eyes on the trail, deliberately slow down my breathing and repeat in my head over and over, “flow like water.”

I picture myself immersed, flowing downstream.

I like thinking about water.

Lately, I’ve been studying the symbolism of the second chakra, located in our lower abdomen, about two inches below the navel and two inches in. Even when you interpret chakras as metaphor, I think it’s useful to find a place in your body to feel the seed of energy you want to explore. The main functions of the second chakra are related to pleasure, emotion, and creativity. When this chakra is healthy, it is the pathway through which we experience a sense of abundance, well-being, and delight in sexuality. When our energy is flowing freely through this channel, we generate authentic human connection and an ability to welcome others and new experiences. When our second chakra is blocked, we feel cold, disconnected and apathetic, afraid to take risks, afraid to trust, afraid to change.

I remind myself that change is the only constant, that change is chemically necessary to life, that passion arises from engagement and that we can’t engage if we aren’t open. But that doesn’t quell my discomfort with change.

Vicki was a student of mine many years ago, in many classes. When I met her, she was bright, vibrant, charismatic, hard-working, beautiful and pregnant. I adored her and she soaked up everything I offered. After graduating from our college, she asked me to meet her for coffee, and she continued to pick my brain throughout graduate school, and then over many lunches where we talked about the publication process, her decision to teach or not to teach, how to get hired, how to juggle children and partners, how to compete as a woman in a man’s world. We emerged from these exchanges without hierarchy. We rose to the surface as friends. Vicki is now my colleague, and does many of the things I do or used to do, with grace and charm that exceed mine. Sometimes after she has orchestrated a public program, male colleagues will say to me, “you better watch out!” or they ask how it feels to have competition, or whether I feel “threatened” or “sickened” by her success. I look at them, puzzled, as if I don’t understand the question. But if they seem genuinely open to hearing my feelings, I tell them the truth: “Every time she shines, I feel so full of pride, I can barely contain it. This is why I do what I do. This is how the river flows. Only a poor teacher has students who don’t surpass her.”

Yogi Seane Corn has a deal she makes with women who ask to pick her brain. She says she will answer anything they ask her, as authentically and generously as she can, but only if the mentee promises to do the same for a younger women who approaches her some day, particularly if she is intimidated or insecure by this rising woman’s intelligence or beauty or charm. She says when we recognize a contraction of fear in our body–that a younger woman will usurp or outshine us–that is when we know we must open ourselves further, that are bodies are telling us to give her more. She says that being generous takes away the power of lack. The moment you stop being generous, you stop the flow of energy and you begin to die.

The truth is, I love to watch Vicki dive in head first. I love to watch her swim in warm waters. And I let her know, as often as possible, that if she’s tired or wants a break or needs an extra oar to row, I’m here, in whatever capacity she requires. I want my students to surpass me, just as I want my children to. And when I operate from this place of abundance, I can feel my second chakra open, the energy flowing toward new experiences, toward openness, toward change.

I think of Gloria Steinem’s prayer for “the courage to walk naked at any age, to wear red and purple, to be unladylike, inappropriate, scandalous and incorrect, to the very end.”

Over the years, I have watched dolphins from the shore, and have looked down or across at them from various boats, but I haven’t yet found the right moment to dive in. I have been many places, danced in many waters, but I have not yet swum with dolphins.

 

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mindfulness

Last night, Ryan and I rolled our mats out onto the carpeted 2nd floor of a freshly stuccoed behavioral health clinic near our house. The lights overhead are fluorescent and there is a constant rumble of air conditioning—it is always too cold, as it tends to be in these types of buildings. On one wall, there are several poster-sized photos of the clinic’s employees, under the phrase “Teamwork.” The employees wear toothy, gleaming, teamwork-y smiles and bright, solid polo shirts. These overly happy, middle-aged white people are posed in an assortment of humorous positions—back to back with arms crossed, and even in a pyramid. When I look at the photos, I imagine the details of the pyramid formation, knees digging into quivering, doughy backs, a photographer nervously clicking. The idea seemed hilarious and harmless, but there’s been a violation; the intimacy is forced. It is uncomfortable to think about.

Hugh, our leader, a tiny Irishman with a heavy brogue, a receding hairline, and exaggerated, almost cartoonish, facial features, tells us to lie down. He leads us through a series of movements, simple yoga poses and stretches, and tells us to breathe and feel our abdomens rise and fall and not to release so far that we are no longer being mindful. Mindful. That is the word of these last few weeks in this class. “Breathe,” he reminds us, constantly, and then he inhales so deeply and exhales so dramatically that I am a tiny bit jealous. I want to breathe like Hugh.

Ryan and I are fascinated with him. In our weekly meetings, he drops hints about what his life used to be like before he discovered mindfulness. “I used to live on Weetabix and adrenaline,” he says, and god I want to know what that means. He used to drink excessively. He was a journalist. He’s seen war. But he never elaborates. “What do you think?” he always asks. After we practice our yoga, we sit in a circle and Hugh talks to us about the past week. I feel an irrational urge to please him. He asks me if I did my yoga and quizzes us about the body’s reaction to stress and I want to tell him the right answer. When he looks at you, he twists his mouth and furrows his forehead and stares intently. He is listening in a way that people rarely do and it is unnerving, and almost exhilarating. The meetings take place every Wednesday between 6pm and 8pm, so we are always hungry, but we can tell that Hugh frowns upon eating during his class, even though snacks are made available. He allows us a five-minute break, during which I quickly gulp down an oatmeal cookie and some green tea, returning to the circle empty-handed. I do not want to disappoint him.

We are in week 4 of an 8-week autism study about stress and parents of children with special needs. Parenting is a stressful job for anyone, we were told by the doctor conducting the study, but parents of children with special needs have much higher levels of stress and therefore suffer increased health problems, including higher mortality rates. I know that I have a problem with stress, and I can’t blame my children for that. It’s always been this way. Of course, as I have gotten older and my responsibilities have grown, my levels of stress have increased. I have so many obligations to so many people and much of the time I feel as though I’m disappointing everyone, doing a sub-par job in every area of my life. I do not need to be told that this manifests physically—I get sick and can’t sleep. I feel knots of pressure in my shoulders and neck. Worse, I get irritable with the people who love me the most. I run regularly, which helps, but not enough. So when I heard about this study in January, I signed us up.

The first night of the study, we went around the room, introducing ourselves and explaining why we were there. Many of the parents are dealing with the same sorts of problems Ryan and I deal with—balancing our obligations, managing the particular uncertainty that comes with raising a child with special needs, feeling as though we are failing. One of the women started crying, which made several of us cry. We recognized something in each other. Hugh stared back at us and listened. Then he told us to lie on the ground, our calves propped up on our chairs. The room was hot and crowded. My arms rubbed up against the stranger next to me. Hugh instructed us to close our eyes and spent several minutes asking us to think about our bodies while we “noticed” our breath. I wanted to get the hell out of there. Panic started to rise up into my chest. I began formulating a to-do list. The trunk of my car needs to be cleaned. I need to put my clothes away. I need to pack Ben’s lunch. I do not have time for this. I do not have time.

We were given a notebook and a cd with Hugh’s voice on it and told to do this “body scan” every night. In the past weeks, he has given us many other exercises to help us be mindful, or aware, of what we are doing, what we are thinking, the sensations in our bodies. I have struggled with my own resistance against this. I do not like to dwell. I do not like to sit in a circle with other people and talk about it. I like to push it away and move forward and knock down whatever is in front of me. Even though it can be exhausting, a part of me likes to be in “fight” mode, even when I don’t need to be. There’s that Avett Brothers song that says “Ever since I learned to speak/ I used all my words to fight/ with him and her and you and me/ but it was just a waste of time.” Ryan says that reminds him of me. I am starting to realize that while this has served me well in many ways, while this has helped me to survive, it is not good for me and it is time to stop, or at least to try.

It is easier to be cynical and to make fun of the photos on the wall or to be annoyed with that one parent who wears boots with her sweatpants and talks about how her diabetes makes her have to pee all of the time. But that doesn’t get me anywhere. It helps that Hugh can be funny and that I can tell he’s been through some dark places. So I am lying down as many nights as I can, and I am listening to Hugh’s voice telling me to notice my toes and the spaces in between, to feel the sensation of my breath as it enters my body, to notice my thoughts and allow them to pass. I am giving it a chance, and I think it is beginning to help.

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