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. 


Hearing versus Listening

“Are you listening to me?”

We were sitting at my desk getting ready for a cozy evening of movie watching on the iMac.

“Are you listening to me?”

I said, “Of course I’m listening to you.” And then proceeded to repeat in perfect order every word.

I wish. Truth is, while I heard Ben talking, I wasn’t listening. 

We don’t do it on purpose. Sometimes we’re distracted. Sometimes we’re thinking about answers to questions that haven’t been asked. Sometimes we’re thinking about lunch.

Whatever the reason, when we are hearing and not listening, we miss out on the benefits that being present and mindful offer. We lose our connection to the person speaking and all that implies, whether it’s a moment of empathy and support or a chance to laugh ourselves silly. 

So here is how I plan to practice listening:

  1. I’m going to back away from the keyboard in order to turn my gaze from the computer screen or cutting board or craft project to the person speaking.
  2. I’m going to look them in the eyes to make a connection – a silent affirmation to indicate ‘yes, what you have to say is important and I am listening to you’.
  3. I’m going to notice when my mind begins to act on the urge to form a response before the person who is speaking has finished – and then draw myself back to the present.
  4. I’m going to ask more questions. An enquiring mind is a listening mind.
  5. I’m not going to talk simply to hear myself speak because, in the end, I’ll learn more from listening to others.

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.