This is Not a Test

rocket-launch-693256_1920I love Ben. He’s been my friend and partner for four years this month. I have friends who have been married longer than I’ve been alive, and so I understand that four years is a very small stretch of time. Yet if feels long enough for life to have always been this way. Me and Ben.

Our views on the world as individuals are slightly different shades of the same color. Like many couples, they are similar but not identical. Where we differ is in our reactions to the mutability of life.

On January 13th the State of Hawaii informed its residents that ballistic missiles were twenty minutes away. Forty-five minutes later they learned it was a false alarm. Long after Hawaiians breathed a collective sigh of relief I remained glued to the news. I watched the same images of clear Hawaiian skies and people running for their lives in what they believed might be their last moments again and again as the videos played in a continuous loop on CNN.

I wasn’t reacting to the thought of missiles raining down on Maui. I was reacting to the thought of what it must have felt like to feel the vibration of an incoming text, to reach for the phone expecting a funny message from your family on the mainland, and instead seeing words almost impossible to process: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

Meanwhile Ben, one of the most compassionate and caring humans I know, shrugged his shoulders. His only reaction was to tell me that if we found ourselves at home and in the same situation there would be no reason to panic. He would take my hand and tell me he loved me. We would simply sit down, hold one another and wait for our lives to continue or for our lives to end. I don’t know if that’s entirely true. I believe he would want to reach out to his family. But after that, what else could we do?

After all, life turns on a dime.

Yoga, I’ve learned, is about self-regulation. Self-regulation means having the ability to manage of our actions and emotional states. Instead of rarefied peaks and dark valleys, we learn to bring the peaks and valleys in our lives closer together until they become gentle, rolling hills. I suppose it’s a little like transforming the Rocky Mountains into the Appalachians. Our lives do not become flat. We don’t become emotionless automatons. We do, however, build resilience. We cultivate the ability to choose wisely. We see our lives more clearly and are better able to move forward, grounded and confident. Stress and cortisol levels lower in tandem and our health improves.

We practice self-regulation in our yoga when we move through asana thoughtfully, at the intensity and depth that is appropriate for our bodies. We practice self-regulation in our yoga when we breathe with intent. We practice self-regulation in our yoga but off our mat when we respond to criticism – whether it’s directed at us from friends, family, strangers or the voice in our head – with composed equanimity.

In truth, as yogis, every moment is a practice preparing us for the next.


The Sense of a Woman

          I’m like that kid in The Sixth Sense.  Except instead of seeing dead people, I smell cigarette smoke.  Now and again, even when the nearest smoldering cancer stick is miles away, I’ll feel the tease of a phantom, acrid odor.  When I mentioned this to my doctor during a routine wellness exam last November he paused, looked up from his computer screen and said, “Really?”

            And that’s how, a few weeks later, I ended up in the neurologist’s office on a Wednesday morning.  The following week I had a brain scan.  The week after that an EEG. Seven days later I returned to the neurologist’s office to find out if I had a brain tumor, epilepsy, chronic sinusitis or a rampant imagination. 

            The odds were on my overactive imagination.  My guess – as a graduate of Princeton Plainsboro under the tutelage of Dr. Gregory House with eight years of further study at Seattle Grace – was that my odd symptoms were nothing more than my body’s way of responding to stress and the hormonal fluctuations of menopause.  But what if I was wrong?  There’s nothing like a slight brush with mortality to jar you from a rut and encourage a yogi to take a good, close look at her practice.  When was the last time you stepped back for a moment to examine your yoga journey? 

            I sat in sukhasana for the first time in 1975. I was a 16-year-old junior at Northwestern Lehigh High School in rural Pennsylvania and my gym teacher Mrs. Carey was introducing the class  to some weird alternative stuff from California she called yoga.  My only goal in life at that time was to find my way to the edge of the Pacific Ocean.  And so, while most of the other girls in class sat slumped and bored, giggly and gossiping, I sat still and closed my eyes.  I knew, at that moment, that I had found my first real thing. A thing I loved. Yet it would be ten years before I sat in sukhasana again.

            I finally made my way to the edge of the Pacific in 1980 to my first real yoga class in a real yoga studio in 1984.  But it feels disingenuous to call the path I’ve walked the past three decades a ‘yoga journey’.  If I’m going to be honest with myself it has been an ‘asana journey’.  Asana. Asana. Asana.   For years layers of tradition were ignored so that I could collect asanas the way some folks collect stamps.  Why not?  It was fun and my body was hungry for it.  I knew it was there, waiting for me, but still I turned a blind eye to the beauty and gossamer depth of a rich yoga practice.  I knew I was taking the scenic route but when at last I began to crave more I was so entrenched in the asana practice my lineage offered that I simply didn’t know where to begin.

            That doesn’t mean I wasn’t trying.  I had all the right books.  The Gita and the Upanishads, the Sutras and the Pradipika.  They sat right next to Light on Yoga, a book that for years I carried with me as though it were the Holy Grail.  I was earnest and eager but on reflection it’s clear.  I wasn’t ready for the truth yoga teaches.  I wasn’t ready for the wisdom.

            Over the past five years, however, my intentions and thus my practice have changed.  I work harder to open my heart and my spirit than I do to open my hips.  My asana practice is still strong but my living practice – how I walk in the world – is stronger.  I am no longer a student of asana.  I am a student of yoga.  So.  Did my yoga practice prepare me for potential change?  Was I worried? I am grateful that over the past five years I have moved toward a deep and authentic practice.  I’m grateful that it has built a wonderful foundation for me when circumstances change and challenges arise.  Yet despite my practice there was a certain and constant low-grade anxiety with one deeply felt crying jag.  But I practice yoga.  I know hot to breathe.  I know how to remain present.  I know how to still my mind and how to move away from the storied chatter.  But that’s what I was doing.  I was writing a story.  I had no idea what news my doctor was going to present me and yet I chose to write a story about a fate I could not predict.

             At the end of the day, I’ll live to smell another day.  All my tests were negative.  My doctor isn’t quite ready to blame my rampant imagination. There’s a possibility of simple focal seizures, which sound more serious than they should.  But all’s well.  I have a fully functioning brain.  And I have an awesome yoga practice.

Different versions of this essay have appeared in Indian Currents and Yoga Living Magazine. 

I am very grateful to both publications for supporting my work.

             


You Want Me to Breathe Into My WHAT???

Heart and lungs

Image via Wikipedia

“Breathe into your back ribs.”

What?

“Breath into the space around your kidneys.”

Seriously?

“Breathe into your big toe.”

Ok.  Now you’re just trying to be funny.

How many times have you been instructed to take your breath someplace considered physiologically impossible?  Yoga teachers give this instruction all the time, but it sounds pretty dumb, doesn’t it?  Our breath moves into our lungs.  Period.

Right?

No one takes the instruction to breathe into the soles of the feet literally.

Do they?

Because, the thing is – I’m one of those yoga instructors.  I’m one of those instructors who will ask you to breathe into places where the breath doesn’t travel.  But I’ve got my reasons.

When I provide the verbal cue to breathe into the back of the ribs I’m instructing my students to bring their awareness to a specific part of the body in a more efficient way than the cue “relax.”

Furthermore, by breathing into the back during a pose like Balasana (child’s pose), the student becomes attuned to the physiology of breathing.  They gain an awareness of the muscles involved.  The lungs may be the workhorse of breath, and the diaphragm our ‘third lung’, but there’s a whole lot more to consider.  Our intercostal muscles, for instance, extend and contract with each breath to move the ribcage.  Our internal obliques work in opposition to the contracting diaphragm.  The gift of breath – the art of breathing – is more than filling the lungs like a balloon.  It is a complex event with an interrelated team of muscles, organs and bones.

So if my verbal cue “breathe into your spine” sounds weird and maybe a bit ‘airy fairy’ – don’t laugh.  Go with it.  Like I said, I have my reasons.