Is it Just Me or is it Getting Hot in Here?

Someone shared a recent critique of my asana classes: “We didn’t sweat enough.”

While some might disagree, for the most part it’s true. My classes are not the ones to attend if you’re looking to leave the studio dripping wet. If you need more sweat Samyama has plenty of strong vinyasa classes taught by instructors happy to crank the thermostat – not to Bikram levels, of course, but high enough to make me feel nostalgic for the flush-filled glow of peri-menopause. 

A certain amount of slowly rising internal heat is good for me. I love when my muscles and bones are warmed by a gentle sequence of standing poses. Yet my asana practice doesn’t ask for nor does it need the intensity delivered by a super heated studio and breathless flow. That doesn’t mean a heated studio is wrong for everyone. But it’s wrong for me and for most of the students who attend my classes.

As a student I was never overly concerned about the temperature of the yoga studio. I never gravitated toward a heated flow but I didn’t shy away either. After the alignment-focused lineage I’d been attached to at the hip for so many years gently loosened its grip I became more open to other methods of practice. I was more inclined to dropping-in to studio classes based on my work schedule rather than on my preference. I even dipped my sweaty toe into the afore-mentioned Bikram class three or four times.

My ego loved Bikram. My body not so much. My ego loved the hyper-mobility achieved during those repetitive ninety minutes of practice while glistening beads of sweat from the forty people crammed into the dank room co-mingled in the humid atmosphere and then rained onto our mats. Hours later my body, still depleted from the effort, with each move would beg to never have to go through the experience again. 

I know. There are some who will offer advice: drink more water before class or try a different teacher – a different heated class. The advice might even be the same advice I offer my students: listen to your body.

Around the same time that I began to follow my own advice I began to ask myself why I  practice asana in the first place. Is it for exercise? To sweat? Do I want to lose weight? Or do I want to look like the the models on the cover of Yoga Journal (when I first began to study yoga – long before the ‘body positive movement’  – the majority of Yoga Journal covers were still graced with young, white and very thin women)?

As I continue to ponder these questions, and as my body changes and begins to send different messages – messages I’ve learned to listen to – my motivation for continuing asana practice evolves. And I’ll be honest – my ego is like a little toddler tugging at my sleeve, challenging my discipline, disrupting my equilibrium and sometimes throwing a tantrum that fills me with self-doubt. But I’m ok with that. It’s part of the human experience.

These questions – which seem trivial compared to…well…pretty much everything else – remind me of how much I still have to learn. How yoga is so much more than our body. So much more than our studio asana practice.

Why do I practice asana? Why do you practice asana? Where does it fit into your yoga journey? Where does it fit into our collective yoga journey?


Aparigraha: Non-attachment (teachers leave and students aren't lemmings)

It’s said that attachment causes suffering and I suppose that’s true. I was attached to my first yoga teachers and the alignment-based system of practice they taught. My attachment ran so deep that as I arrived for class if I noticed there was a substitute I turned around and left.  My attachment to their teaching and to that system remained after I moved away and began the search for new teachers. The deep, impenetrable layers of judgement I carried with me, however, prevented me from enjoying practice. More importantly, judgements prevented me from learning because no other yoga instructor could climb the pedestal on which I’d placed my teachers. How incredibly unfair. It pains me to think of all the opportunities I lost – opportunities to gain knowledge because of the attachment I held to my yoga ‘lineage’ and to my first yoga teachers.

Decades later but only a little more wise and I find myself in an awkward position. A few weeks ago I was offered and accepted a new class, stepping in to take over for a beloved instructor who had been teaching at Samyama, like me, from Day One. When I first agreed to take the class I didn’t think about the implications.

And then I did. 

By saying ‘yes’ I set in motion a chain of events that upended my schedule and required that I practice aparigraha – non-attachment. Because as much as students become attached to teachers, teachers become attached to students.

There’s comfort in seeing the students’ same smiling faces when I take tadasana in front of a class. We know what to expect from one another. They know I’m going to crack a few bad jokes. I know that a least a few of them will laugh even if they’ve heard the same joke for the last eight years. They know I’m going to encourage the use of blocks in half moon and revolved triangle in order to experience the unencumbered swoop of clear energy a few inches of extra height delivers. I know that at least a few will decline the suggestion and that I won’t mind as long as they’re safe because we are all on our own journey. They know I’m not going to play music because silence is so rare. They know I’m not going to offer hands-on adjustments because I don’t know their entire story (and I don’t have x-ray vision). I know, that for some, these are the reasons why they chose my class. 

But the students who lost their teacher had not chosen my class. They chose someone else’s class and now that someone was gone.

Arriving at that realization (a ‘no-brainer’ for some but for me a ‘smack-in-the-head-emoji’ moment) opened my heart to a deeper understanding of arparigraha. Setting free attachment to schedules and classes and the comfort of smiling faces is sort of easy. Knowing I could also set free my attachment to the knowledge that I am not the teacher I am replacing (and the anxiety that knowledge causes) set in motion another chain of events. Releasing that attachment also released my attachment to the fear I have of being a disappointment, of not being liked, of losing students and of not experiencing the same success as my predecessor.

At the end of the day, I am lucky. Many of the students I had in my earlier class moved to the new class. And it looks like more than a few of the previous teacher’s students are staying, too.

What have I learned? I’ve learned that the most difficult attachment to let go of is the story we tell ourselves. I’ve also learned that there is one attachment I hope to never let go of: my attachment to being me.


Still Processing

I was not expecting to feel the way I do. Relieved. Guilty. Annoyed. Two weeks later and I’m just realizing now that I no longer have any reason to avoid calling my mother. I’m realizing, too, that unless I plan on learning I won’t be knitting any blankets and don’t need to keep her collection of needles.

I’m keeping them anyway.  

I’m keeping pieces of paper with her perfect Palmer penmanship. A piece of cardboard with a list of passwords she created each time she forgot the last password. When we first reconciled a decade or so ago I sent the money for a laptop. I told her if she had a laptop we could send letters (she insisted on called emails ‘letters’) every day. In the end though, she really only used it to find out what was on television and to check the obituaries in Allentown’s Call Chronicle. 

Friends tell me this is normal. To be reminded of all that has been lost while doing the simplest things. While walking through the freezer section at Mollie Stone’s and hearing the chorus of a song she sang. She loved music. When we first moved to Lynnport she and my step-dad formed a country and western band called Johnny and the Texas Tophands. Local bars from Topton to Hamburg booked them for gigs most weekends. Once they played before a NASCAR race at the Pocono Speedway. John rented a tour bus to take the band and all their equipment up to the mountains. I think my sister was old enough for the two of us to stay home alone that weekend. 

I suppose what my friends tell me is true. That this is normal. That no matter the gulf between mother and daughter, losing a parent changes a child’s life. Even if that child was born when Dwight D. Eisenhower was President. 

There’s a space in my life that wasn’t there before and I’m not yet certain how it should be filled.


Ashes to Ashes

Did you know it’s possible to ship human remains – or in this case cremains –  from one side of the country to the other? I did not. 

My mother’s cremains were shipped to me on January 8 along with three copies of her death certificate and the necklace she was wearing when she took her last breath. I was told that after a few days of fighting the inevitable her passing last Friday was peaceful.

I need the certificates to close her phone, cable and bank accounts. Holding her necklace in my hands will bring resonant clarity to the last six months. But the ashes? What am I supposed to do with a box full of ashes?

I suppose, given how rare it was to see her without a cigarette in her hands, it’s appropriate that my mother ended her life on earth going up in smoke. But the truth is the box that arrives on my doorstep will not be filled with ashes. Cremains are, in fact, pulverized bone. So what should I do with five pounds of pulverized bone?

A quick internet search offers choices: I could have them compressed into a synthetic diamond or have them set into a piece of sterling silver jewelry. I could use them to plant a tree, which is a nice idea, or I could scatter them to the wind. What I won’t do is put them in a fancy urn to let them gather dust on a bookshelf until someone decides I should be turned into five pounds of pulverized bone.

When people die we like to imagine them with loved ones who have passed. With my mom, that’s tricky. I can’t imagine her with her abusive first husband (my father), or with the mother she fought with or my sister Margaret, from whom she was estranged. It would be nice if she was hanging around with her one true love, Tom, whom she met when she was fifty and was with for almost twenty-five years, but I never met him and so that’s difficult for me to see in my mind’s eye.

Maybe she’s nowhere. I don’t really believe that, but some people do. I believe that my mother’s energetic vibration is looking for a place to settle. In Buddhism this is a bardo state – a liminal state between death and rebirth. Given the story of her life, the drama and the anger, is it my responsibility to help her move from her bardo state? Or is finding a place for her cremains an act that will only bring comfort to me?

My mother loved to tell the story of being stationed in San Francisco when she was a young girl in the Army and her visits to Top of the Mark. I think that would be a nice place to leave a little bit of her energy. Later in life, she spent nights at the Fogelsville Bar, perched like the Queen of the Silver Dollar. Maybe I can leave just a little bit of my mom on one of the barstools.

What I think she might like most of all is a good view. So if you’re hiking the cliff side in Half Moon Bay and catch the scent of garlic, coffee and Pall Malls – say ‘hello’ to Bobbie.


La-La-Latke Land

Despite my mother’s insistence, and the evidence I found in her belongings, 23 and Me insists I’ve not a drop of Jewish blood. In other words, it’s highly probable that I don’t have the DNA to make a good latke. I tried anyway.

I had a few things going against me. Some my own doing.

  1. They needed to be vegan.
  2. Rather than using two potatoes I decided to use one potato and one white-fleshed yam.
  3. I was of the opinion that latkes were nothing more than Jewish hash browns. What could go wrong?

It turns out, quite a bit can go wrong.

If vegan latkes means no eggs to bind them what will keep them from falling apart? The choices are varied: chia seed, flax powder or aquafaba. Ben’s brilliant sister – who knows her way around the kitchen – squeezed the water from her shredded potato, allowed it to settle, and then used the starch at the bottom of the bowl plus one half of a banana to bind. My sad choice? Flour. In my defense I was referencing a recipe I found online. I said to myself, “That’s odd” but pulled the organic flour from the back of my kitchen cabinet anyway. A more skilled cook might have gotten away with it. Me? Not so much.

It was going well at first. I grated my tubers (the joke goes latkes are “Grate, Grate, Great!”) and spooned the results into a milk bag to press out as much liquid as possible. I returned the dried lump of spud and yam (spam?) back to a bowl and added half of a finely chopped shallot, a bit of baking powder, a splash of plant milk, salt and pepper and, of course, the flour. I can’t provide precise measurements for two reasons:

  1. I don’t have precise measurements.
  2. I referenced the online recipe. I didn’t exactly follow it.

Over-confidence got the better of me. When I could turn my batter into little patties I thought to myself, “I’ve got this.” When I put two test latkes on a slightly oiled griddle and watched them  turn golden brown I smiled. But something wasn’t quite right. Instead of my latkes looking like this:

After they were fried they looked like this:

Although Ben insisted that all latkes are different and some even look like mine, I didn’t believe him primarily because I could serve the darling man baked brown paper bag and he’d insist it was the best brown paper bag he ever ate. 

While they were somewhat crunchy on the outside, they had the consistency of grade school paste on the inside. Next year? This Gentile is sticking to hash browns.


I Am Here

As I come to understand that my mother is going to die soon I find it difficult to remain present. My mind wanders to past injustices real or imagined and to future hurdles. I was not the best daughter. I stew in the guilt of our 28-year estrangement and then in the next moment choke it down where it sits like a lump in my belly.

Watching my mother’s dementia worsen is like watching a life disappear. And as I empty her trailer of books and furniture and clothing and photos it’s clear to me that my actions, too, are part of the process of disappearing.

What do I do with the things that hold resonance for me? Like the oak bookshelves, or the cookie jar and the 4-string guitar? They’re stacked and covered in blankets in a storage locker 2500 miles away. Will they stay there forever? Would it have been better to sell or give them away? In a year will I have regret for the books I saw thrown away or the trinkets I decided to keep?

And what about the things too big to hide in a storage locker? Like her trailer? It won’t sell and I can’t pay the $800 lot rent. Do I abandon my mother’s home for the past forty years? Her neighbor is afraid that if I close the PPL (Pennsylvania Power and Light) account the water pipes will freeze and burst, causing havoc and despair for everyone in her Green Acres Mobile Home Park circle.

I didn’t expect to be doing this alone. I didn’t expect to be doing it at all. When I ran away from my mother and my sister I had no plans to return. But there was a moment when I thought ‘an old woman deserves peace’ and I reached out. I told myself that I didn’t need to love her. I didn’t even need to like her. But I needed to be with her and to do my best to care for her. To be kind to her.

And I was. 

She and my sister had stopped speaking to one another years earlier. For that reason I kept Margaret shut off from my life. Something I regret. A few years after the reunion with my mother Margaret died. 

And now here I am, finding it difficult to remain present. 

When I was in Pennsylvania in October I began each day with a walk and a photograph. It was grounding and brought a sense of calm presence to me that stayed with me for much of the day. But when I returned to Allentown last week I  forgot that practice. Until I took half a day to visit my favorite place – Hawk Mountain.

The photographs are nothing fancy – simply shot with my iPhone 7. But each time I hold up that little miracle of a computer I am in the moment. There is nothing but my beating heart and the leaf or flower or mountain I’m looking at. For that little moment there is no past, no future. There is only now.

I came home last Friday and have decided to continue the practice of taking one photograph each day. And in that moment all things fall away and I am here.


Sanford’s Premium Never Fades

We moved into the Lynnport Schoolhouse in the fall of 1966, when I was 8 years old. Built early in the 19th century – I think in 1814 – the two-room structure served students until the 1950’s, when it was converted to a home and a barber shop. By the time we moved in the original brick had long been covered with white stucco, the bell tower had been taken down (the original bell now resides in New Tripoli’s history museum), the fireplaces boarded and replaced by a hissing monster of a coal-fired furnace in the dank basement. That same furnace belched carbon monoxide our first winter there, and only through the quick thinking of Marge Merkle did my mother, my sister and I survive. Sadly, our parakeet didn’t.

When we moved in there were still a few remnants of the school’s former life: a portion of the original blackboard in what became my little ‘play room’, the chalk trough that extended along one wall of my bedroom, a tired schoolroom bench with cast iron details that my mom salvaged with a few coats of paint and, in the attic, three empty quart sized Sanford ink bottles. My mother carefully cleaned the bottles and kept them displayed on the built-in pine hutch that covered almost the entire length of one living room wall.

My mother sold the schoolhouse in 1977 when I was in my first year of college. I was told of her decision long after the deed was done. She had, in fact, already moved into Green Acres Mobile Home Park. I don’t know why but her decision broke my heart. Up until then, no matter how dysfunctional our family dynamics were, it was the home I remembered. But now a price had been paid for my memories and no more would I sit on my wide windowsill watching muskrats swim up the creek that ran below my bedroom window. The room would never be filled with the scent of lilac and spring willow. My refuge from the chaos around me now belonged to someone else.

The trailer my mother moved into was small and dark but she was happy to leave the big school house. It meant she was closer to Shankweiler’s, where she worked as a waitress. I visited her in the trailer once or twice in the 1980’s and then, for many many reasons, we became estranged.  When I finally returned to the trailer in 2006 a few things had changed. It was darker than I remembered and sticky with layers of nicotine. But she now had the oak barrister’s bookcase that once belonged to my grandfather and, on one of the shelves, were the three Sanford ink bottles from the attic of the Lynnport Schoolhouse.

Since 2005 my mother’s health has declined. Her friends describe the behavioral changes and memory lapses of what is now diagnosed dementia. Over the past two years she’s fallen several times and remains in severe pain almost certainly due to fractures in her ribs and spine that were ignored by doctors after her first tumble. The remodeled bone – evidence of her injuries – was discovered just last week by physicians in the hospital she was admitted to after having the fall that finally broke her hip. 

I was in Pennsylvania when she broke her hip, there to tell her that the nursing home in which she had been admitted would now be her home. My mother needed 24-hour care and I was, in fact, already in the process of parsing out her possessions – deconstructing an 86-year-long story. I knew that as I packed up my mother’s long and troubled life that I was packing up a piece of my own existence and it was unclear to me if the choices I made were correct. What should I keep? What should I pass on? They were, after all, only possessions. Yet they were imprinted with my family’s ghosts. Filled with uncertainty and guilt, I finally moved the items I thought should stay with me to one room and told my mother’s two friends they could have the rest.

In between searching for the papers needed for her Medicaid application and surviving the overpowering stench from forty-three years of cigarette smoke that infused every inch of every item in the trailer with an acrid, choking perfume, I made the twenty-minute drive down Route 143 to Lynnport.

I’d made this journey each time I’ve come to Pennsylvania to visit my mom. Each time I told myself that this would be the time I knocked on the door. And each time I lost my nerve. On this visit, however, when I drove past the house I saw a woman standing not far from where the rose bushes used to grow. I pulled my rented silver Hyundai Sonata toward the side of the road where the long-gone forsythia bushes bloomed bright yellow and walked to the gate held closed by a bungee cord.

“I used to live in this house.”

“What?” The woman couldn’t hear me over the barking of her black boxer. She walked over to me.

“I used to live in this house.”

She opened the gate and introduced me to her partner. She gave me a tour of the garden that changed so much since I’d last seen it. She told me she bought the house because she loved the history of the schoolhouse – a truth that created an instant connection. It was always the story of the schoolhouse that made me love living there.  She brought me inside. My playroom, my bedroom and my sister’s bedroom were gone. The interior was a great open space. My mother’s bedroom was an office and the room we used for storage – the old barber shop once lined with mirrors – was now the bedroom it always should have been. Yet even with all the many changes, remnants remained – the energy of the schoolhouse was still there. So was the blackboard from my play room – preserved and hung with love in a wooden frame. 

The dark attic where my mother discovered the Sanford Ink bottles was now a light filled loft. Exposed beams revealed decades old graffiti from students and teachers. The house I lived in until I was sixteen had been transformed into something beautiful. It had become a real home. It was then I knew what I had to do. 

I brought two of the bottles full circle and returned them to the Lynnport Schoolhouse – the place where they belonged. The third bottle is filled with ghosts from my childhood and will stay with me. 

As the year’s go by memories of my decade in the old Lynnport Schoolhouse become blurry. But like the bottle says, Sanford’s Premium ink never fades.