The Unnerving Unknown

Sometimes yoga teachers will cue students to step one foot back behind the other. For instance, students may be standing with both feet together in Mountain Pose and then asked to step the left foot three feet back to Warrior One.

As a young(ish) student, hearing Karl say ‘step your foot back’ filled me with unnerving dread. How was I to know what was behind me? What if an errant yoga block was precisely where I wanted to blindly place my foot? What if the floor had moved? It didn’t take much for me to imagine black, empty space where once there were solid planks of maple worn to a soft, golden patina by decades of practicing yogis. It seems silly now, but stepping my foot back without being able to see where it was going was too much like flinging myself into the unknown.

The unknown can be a scary place. And here we are, flung into the middle of it.  

This is a collective unknown. We are all experiencing the pandemic together, in real time. Some – like the residents of New York City – are closer to it than others. But we are, as the talking heads keep repeating, in this together.

Does that make it any less unnerving? It depends. We’ve all seen images of spring break revelers partying like it’s 1999, and we may have read the story of the B-list starlet who values her freedom more than her health. At the same time an enterprising man, upon hearing the news of the coronavirus, purchased every bottle of hand sanitizer he could find in order to sell them on Amazon for a healthy profit. After a few weeks of relying on people’s fears to make him a wealthy man Amazon got whiff of the scam and busted him. In the end he donated the remainder of his sanitized stash. And we’ve all stared in disbelief at the empty store shelves where once the Charmin Ultra Soft family of bears smiled down upon us. 

The cavalier youth, the freedom loving starlet, the enterprising man and those of us who believe toilet paper will save our heinies if not our lives – we have something in common. If we dig deep I bet even the man behind the sanitizer scam will admit to feeling uneasy about tomorrow.

But aren’t we always standing in the middle of the unknown? We can plan – and boy do I love to plan – but we really don’t know what will happen in the next moment let alone in the next year. 

It’s just that this unknown is too big, isn’t it? Maybe size doesn’t matter. No matter the unknown, our choices for how we handle the stress and anxiety are pretty much the same the same. 

  1. Know the unknown. What is a virus? What’s the best way to wash my hands? What else can I do to keep myself and my family safe and healthy?
  2. Break it down into sizable chunks. What do I need to do today? What can I do tomorrow?
  3. Prepare. Last week I channeled my inner Boy Scout and without being too excessive (except for the vanilla soy creamer I need for my morning tea) bought the foods Ben and I need for a few weeks. And then I made soup. A lot of soup.
  4. Breathe. When I feel the ‘winding up’ I do something my acupuncturist taught me to do years ago. She told me to breathe into my feet. It works. Visualizing the inhalation moving to the souls of the feet roots me to the earth. It re-establishes my equilibrium in a way I didn’t know was possible. Another technique I love is the ‘candle breath’.  Breathe in through the nose and then exhale through the mouth with pursed lips, as if blowing out a candle. Extend the out-breath until it’s a little longer than the in-breath. Your shoulders will drop away from your ears and whatever you anxiety you were holding on to will melt away.
  5. Move. I take mental health walks. When I walk there is a noticeable difference in my outlook and attitude. This week I learned that one walk every other day isn’t enough and so I’m beginning to take two walks – one in the morning and one after lunch. They keep me sane.
  6. Distract. I’m a sucker for sit-com bloopers. Or the cowbell sketch from Saturday Night Live. I’m trying to watch less news and to read more books. The kind with pages. Or I get myself wrapped up in ‘contemplative crafts’ – for this pandemic I’ve taken up making tiny baskets. They take more hours than I can count but their repetitive nature is meditative.
  7. Speaking of things that are meditative: meditate. I have the Headspace App but if you’re not into apps then just set a timer for five minutes, find a comfortable seat and watch your breath. When thoughts come up – and they will – without judgement notice that’s what has happened and then gently redirect your attention back to your breath.
  8. Speaking of the breath, tonglen breath is a beautiful practice that forces me to acknowledge the pain that the whole wide world is feeling now but it’s a practice that also offers me a technique to lighten the pain. Read Pema Chodron’s instructions for tonglen breath here.
  9. Support. I’ve found that it’s possible to keep my distance and still be helpful. Ben’s and my neighbor can’t drive and so yesterday he wrote us a list, gave us a debit card (that Ben sanitized) and I shopped. On my way I dropped off some soup at a friend’s house. Compassion and care for others is a reminder that it isn’t all about me.
  10. Ask for support. We are physically separated but not socially separated. Use your phone. FaceTime. Set up a Zoom Happy Hour. Find out if your favorite yoga teacher is running online classes. I’m so happy I took the plunge and set up my own classes. Staying in touch with my community has been a huge blessing. We know that we’re there for one another. Knowing that is all the support I need.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. 


The Gift Part II: How Mimm Got Her Mojo Back

When I was in my late twenties there was a nightclub with a mezzanine and lots of ferns on Bryant Street in downtown Palo Alto called 42nd Street. It later became O’Connell’s Pub – a place I loved and, if my memory serves, the place where I saw the band Black 47 for the first time. But when it was still 42nd Street I was taken there after a dinner date. We had a drink or two to loosen the truth and then he said something I’ve never forgotten:

“I think the reason why you keep yourself so busy is to avoid meeting people.”

It was a small but pointed observation. While at the time I was keeping busy in order to avoid a second date (very nice guy but not my type), his words stung. But as the saying goes, the truth hurts.

It was never my intention to be a busy person. My natural inclination leans more toward sloth than to hare. And yet, here I am. A busy person.

Being busy has its benefits. I’ve worked hard enough over the past decade to purchase my own BMR home. I’ve worked hard enough to keep myself clothed with mark downs at Nordstrom’s Rack and I’ve worked hard enough to keep myself a little too well fed. I’ve even worked hard enough to enjoy the occasional splurge. The latest? Lash extensions and a mani/pedi so I could feel full-on girlie girl at the wedding Ben and I attended last month in Atlanta. 

Being busy has cost me, too. Being busy has kept me from the things that help me feel whole. No amount of lash extensions and freshly painted toes can replace a quiet hour of writing or a day given over to kumihimo, basket making or taking photographs at Shoreline. 

But now we’ve landed on the second Monday since the start of the Zombie Apocalypse. It feels less like eight days and more like eight years. Still, I’ve been given the precious gift of time. What have I done with it all?

On the first Monday, when I took my walk to the pain clinic and found it closed, the novelvirus was as described: novel. I didn’t give the sudden change in circumstances much thought. I was feeling a bit giddy – a little like the feeling I have after an earthquake that’s big enough to remind me life is fragile but not so big as to break the Simon Pearse vase given to me as a housewarming gift.

By Tuesday I was pulling my hair out.

On Wednesday my beloved Ben was thinking about finding an office space to rent. Yes, I was that bad. So I took myself to Shoreline and began to ponder how we would survive. Ben joked if the virus didn’t kill him, I would (SO not true!).

I spent some virtual time with my new peer coach, Evan, on Thursday. By the end of our Discovery Meeting I had an action plan in place. I resolved not only to write an hour a day or 500 words – which ever came first – I also made a promise to myself to create a schedule. I realized my heightened anxiety was fueled by a sense of being unmoored. When all my work ended I was set adrift. A schedule would anchor me once again. I just had to be certain it was a schedule that focused less on creating Busy Person Mimm and more on Taking Care of Mimm.

By Friday I had free online yoga classes organized for my students and friends – you can find the schedule here. I filled my academic calendar with the classes I now have time to take to complete my coaching certification. And I scheduled time for walks, for art, for self-care. 

And today? The second Monday since the start of the Zombie Apocalypse? Well, it’s possible that today I got my mojo back.


The Gift, Part I

On Monday the 16th of March I left home halfway through the government’s daily COVID-19 press briefing for the thirty minute walk to Feinberg Medical Group where I teach yoga and meditative crafts to chronic pain clients.

When I walk to the clinic I am listening to the sounds around me. I hear dogs scolding me with frantic yips from their living room perch. The 1:40 southbound CalTrain screams its way toward its next stop. Traffic races down Alma and music pumps from transistors balanced on the tailgates of pickup trucks parked in front of green manicured lawns.  

The path I walk takes me past Palo Alto High School. Before the coronavirus closed Paly the school’s track would rumble with the footfalls of athletes, the coach’s loud shouts of encouragement and snide laughter from the bleachers. 

Decades ago I walked with a cassette tape Walkman and then, when they arrived, a CD Walkman. I graduated to an iPod and progressed to a Nano a few years after that. If I was walking my ears were plugged and my brain was pulsing with U2, Jackson Brown, the Eurythmics or (and this will really give away my age) Howard Jones. When I grew tired of music I’d listen to news. Music or headlines – it didn’t really matter. My brain was happier stuffed with something other than my thoughts. On the day I realized I’d arrived for my walk at Shoreline without my Nano I almost turned around. How was it possible that I’d be able to place one foot in front of the other without my Nano?

Somehow I managed. That was the day I realized the cry of seagulls and the sound of the wind circling through the rushes was better than Bono wailing about bloody Sundays and the incessant peal of the next breaking bulletin. 

And that’s why I missed the news of the Bay Area’s imminent lock down on Monday. I was too busy listening to the thrum of life. That’s why I was surprised by the frantic energy pouring from Trader Joe’s doors as I passed. It explains why, by the time I arrived at Feinberg’s all that was left for me to do was turn around and return home. The functional restoration program – the program of which I’m a part – had sent patients home.

Like so many others, in twenty-four hours I went from having an overflowing calendar to one that was near-enough to empty.

We’re facing a tremendous challenge. Nevertheless, six days in and I’m realizing what a gift I’ve been given.


Three Weeks From Now

I’m watching Brian Stelter on CNN this morning. He makes an important point: it’s not SOCIAL distancing, it’s PHYSICAL distancing we’re meant to practice. And then he asks, “Three weeks ago, what did you think you’d be doing today?”

Three weeks ago I thought today would be the day Ben and I celebrate his birthday a few days late. I imagined a sunny drive to Half Moon Bay and a walk along the bluffs. I imagined a wonderful lunch – maybe at Duarte’s in Pescardero. I imagined a stop at Harley Farms to pet the goats and to stock up on hand salve and habanero jam. Instead, he’s in Ohio helping his son move from his dorm and back home. The campus is closed and for the foreseeable future his classes will be online.

Three weeks ago I thought that later today, after the birthday celebrations, I’d be planning my week, scheduling meetings, thinking about lesson plans, thinking about my first class of the week at Subud House and preparing practices for my individual clients. Instead, I’m filling an empty schedule with the theory classes I need to complete via Zoom as part of the requirements of the 18-month program in coaching through ICA that I enrolled in at the start of the year. I’m thinking about how I can remain physically distant from students and yet still hold on to the continuity of a regular group practice. And of course I’m thinking about all the goals I set for myself at the start of the year that I let go of as life became too full.

But now life isn’t full. Samyama Yoga Center has closed through April. Clients I see in their own homes have pressed ‘pause’ and the pain management programs I’m part of are hanging on by tenterhooks and I would not be surprised if they, too, shuttered for a few weeks.  

I have the mental space I’ve been craving but it does not make me happy. It makes me feel unmoored.  I’m filled with an unnerving mix of acceptance and anxiety.  I peeled myself away from the news just long enough to watch the movie Contagion.

Three weeks ago it was easy to think about what I’d be doing today. Ask me what I’ll be doing three weeks from now and I don’t have an answer.

This brings home the truth that our only constant is change and the most important thing we can do to feel safe in an uncertain world is to remain rooted in our practice.

As Seltzer ended his segment he suggested social media can be a force for good. And why not? It doesn’t matter if it’s filled with saccharine quotes, fake news and cute cat videos. It can also be a place where we can still be together. 

Hang in there. Stay healthy and in cyber-touch.  Wash your hands, moisturize and don’t hoard toilet paper.