Saturday, January 28, 2017
Toby chews on sticks, or splashes in the shallows, radiating joy. In this place I am able to focus on the abundance in my life, the blessings for which I am grateful. Minute by minute. Hour by hour. Day by day. The shouting of the world that exists outside of this one small beach echoes in my brain, but is no match for the river's constant voice. The fear that threatens to overwhelm and win has no voice here in the land of moving water and life-giving trees and creatures with wings to remind me that there is more.
The river's murmuring allows me to hear my own voice. The one that lives deep and that I've often disguised to be more acceptable to people I needed to be loved by. From childhood, my voice has been the one to challenge and question. I was the "why?" kid. Then for a long time I became agreeable, my outer voice echoing the voices of others, even when inside I was still asking why. Perhaps inevitably, what came next was a very loud voice, declaring truth righteously and angrily. Demanding to be heard and understood. Huge noise that sounded like explosion, but was in fact a heart breaking. When none of that worked, I wrapped my voice in soft cotton and put her away in a safe place. And while out of danger, I felt distressingly invisible for a very long time.
Over time I learned that honoring my own voice was less about being heard, and more about simply being human and present. I choose to remain quiet as much as possible (although there are some who would dispute that I'm ever quiet). I listen as fully as I'm able. And then, when I believe my words will bring light or new truth to a situation, I'll find a way to offer them. My voice as an offering, not a weapon of aggression or shame, or a handmaiden of fear.
A tiny brown winter wren chips and flits just inches from where I stand. His voice ranges from the chip-chipping he seems to use as he seeks food in the underbrush, to the full-throated glorious celebratory song far too big to be coming from a few ounces of feathers. He doesn't regulate his voice to please, or out of fear. He sings and calls in his wren voice because there is no other way to be a wren.
For better or worse, there are many many ways to be human. There are times when I want to shout over the shouting of others, frantic to be heard before it's too late. It seems like the loudest voice wins, even though I know this is not a game or a competition. Whether in family or in the larger world, I am one small voice. And, as has been the case for most of my life, my voice does not often reflect a majority view. I am choosing not to shout, or demand. I am choosing to attempt to hear what the shouting voices are saying, although the louder and harsher they get, the harder it is to hear. Which in turn reminds me why stillness and gentleness are really the only escorts I want for my own voice.
Stillness, not silence. Light, not fear. Love, not shame.
Walking away from the river, headed toward home, I stop for one last look upstream. The river's voice fades into the background. Toby and I make our way along the trail into the woods and another voice whispers overhead. The wind has joined our walk. Much like the river, wind's voice is constant and soothing, speaking truth that has no words. Like river, wind's voice can get loud, but neither are so loud that their voices diminish the importance of my own. Their voices simultaneously humble mine and honor it.
Each voice is important. Each voice deserves to be heard, if for no other reason than to reveal the speakers to themselves. At the same time, each of us is one very small voice in an incomprehensibly huge gathering of life. We matter. But we don't matter most. Not one single one of us. Understanding is always one river bend away, one wind voice in the trees speaking a language just beyond our ability to interpret. Seeking to understand is when voice seems to offer the most comfort, and the most wisdom. Asking why, voicing possible answers, being open to the entire chorus of humanity. Searching for harmony.
Sunday, January 8, 2017
In yoga recently the teacher compared the 90 minute class with the 90 years of a human lifetime. The first 50 minutes, he said, like the first 50 years of your life, are preparation for the most challenging part which comes after. Bikram yoga starts with a series of standing postures that focus on balance, strength and discipline. The standing series feels much harder than the 40 minutes of postures done on the floor.
Balancing on one foot and then the other, posture after posture. I stagger, regroup, tip over, breathe, and find a center from which to be still. Suck in your stomach, tighten up your thighs, glutes, knees. Use your bulldog determination. Breathe, always breathe. If you can't breathe you need to back off a bit. Listen to your body. Go beyond your limits, but not too far. Sweat rolls and pools and drips. Muscles hold and then tremble and then hold again. Breath catches somewhere in my chest and I have to go inward to bring it out. But often there is no time. Forward movement leaves little room for catching up.
I'm aware of people around me going to the floor at times during the standing series. Doing only one of the two repetitions of each posture. Or none. Triangle, also called the master's pose, referred to as the top of the mountain, never fails to bring at least one person to their knees. Already exhausted, but also as flexible as we're going to get, doing triangle requires complete focus and an ability to shut out the voice that says you don't have to do this. I think now and again about only doing one, and always talk myself out of it. Better to do the posture in less than full expression than to go to the floor and maybe not want to get back up again.
The standing series feels like hard work, and the work often hurts. In those 50 minutes we resist the pull of gravity, as much as we resist the urge to inertia. That time is about building muscle and endurance. We're directed to focus outside of ourselves on our reflections in the mirror, not for judgement, but to check for alignment and form. That judgment inevitably happens then becomes part of the work.
The last of the standing postures is the Bikram version of tree or toe stand. Balanced on one leg, hands in namaskar, focused on one spot, breathing evenly, standing strong and proud like an oak tree. This is one of my favorite postures. In part because the floor is only seconds away. In part because I have seen much improvement in the months I've been practicing. The best part though, is the green energy field I can see radiating from my body when my focus is clean.
As we settle into savasana (dead body pose) at the beginning of the floor series, the teacher will often say the standing series was the warm up for what comes next. There's always a bit of a chuckle at this, because really what could possibly be harder than what we've just done. We're pretending to be dead bodies, with nothing expected of us in that moment but stillness. And breathing. How hard can that be?
It turns out that it's a completely different breed of hard.
No longer struggling against gravity, we are encouraged to let the earth hold us as we lie on the floor. The strength required for this is more mental than physical. The mirrors are no longer available for feedback, so it's even more important to go inward. To listen to the body voice and the heart voice. We don't always appreciate what those voices are saying, but there's no way to escape beyond the spectacle of fleeing the room.
Rest is built in, savasana done after every posture. Done, we're told, to allow the body to absorb what it's just been through. A time of focusing entirely on breathing. None of the distractions easily available when standing; no twitching or wiping sweat off or drinking water or pulling at your yoga pants so you look thinner.
The most challenging posture of the floor series is camel. Meant to strengthen and stretch the spine, it also opens up the heart. The result is often a flood of emotion, or nausea, or dizziness. The teachers often say we might feel euphoria here, but I think that's a fantasy thrown into the dialogue to trick us into not giving the nausea too much credit. Feelings are pushed to the surface through the opening up of the front of the body. Not for the faint of heart for sure. As the analogy goes, I see this pose as a chance later in the process for a final cleansing and releasing of long-held pain. It also involves a release of control. There's no real way to know what might find its way to the surface.
After the standing series, there is no energy left for anything but essential movement. Monkey mind is quieter. Energy is conserved. Focus is on small adjustments, which bring small improvements. There is also less inclination for comparison with fellow yogis because it's much harder to see others from the floor. A feeling of camaraderie replaces the pull of competition so hard to resist when we can see each other in the standing series. We've all gone through this thing together, a family of sorts. The privilege of being human becomes a gift to be cherished in those clear clear moments. The gift of breath. The peace of exhaustion and attention paid to every part of being human in 90 minutes. The space created around the troubles and worries brought into the room makes life outside the room easier and brighter.
When I was younger, I looked at retired people, if I considered them at all, with envy. Old people had it easy. No responsibilities. No worries. Sure there could be physical issues, and losses, but mostly it looked like a cake walk. I looked forward to being one of those people. From the hubris of unlimited energy, endless possibilities for starting over, and reliable mental resources, I neglected to understand I would be one of those people but in an older body with an older mind. Not retired with the energy and perspective of my middle age as I expected.
I'm discovering that being in the life version of the floor series is indeed more challenging than it might look from the outside. The resting in between postures is essential. Everything moves more slowly and requires more concentration. Instead of pushing myself harder, it's much more effective to be still and relax into whatever is being asked. Resistance no longer serves. Acceptance and listening and breathing into the stretches has replaced muscling through. Asking my body, not demanding.
Just as I feel lying on the floor in class, in many ways this time of life seems easier despite the challenges. It's really just me and my own inner voice. Outer voices only carry whatever weight I'm inclined to give them. The struggle is less physical and more everything else. It's harder to get away from unpleasantness, cradled in the arms of the earth. Running (or resisting) requires more energy and intention than simply staying put. On the other hand, staying with the discomfort turns out to be not as terrible as I used to believe.
I find myself in a time where it would be easy to forget my grounding and the lessons of breathing to expand and clarify and cleanse. Like so many, I'm still grieving the election. Winter, and this harsh winter in particular, and the literal darkness that comes with this time of year, always challenge my healing and my equanimity. Freedom of movement is curtailed by ice and snow. Electricity has been lost to winds with the power to uproot giant fir trees and to split my favorite oak tree in half. A younger brother is caught in the whirlpool decline of dementia. Family members are in pain and struggling, and sometimes their struggles create pain for me. There is a clarity that powering through is no longer an option. This groundedness is really my only choice, even when it doesn't feel like enough, and too slow and with no illusion of control for comfort.
But there is a fluidity to the ground. Change is embedded in everything. Each in-breath brings in new air, new life. Each out-breath takes away what no longer serves. Even in stillness there is movement. In death, life. In darkness the memory of light that burns through, that promises to return. Living to 90 feels less important than living to 90 fully alive. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Live.