Please see the Spring 2010 Willow Street Newsletter to see more about what led me to teach. While you’re reading, check out all the fabulous yoga offerings.
Saw this as an email signature from an email on a list serve I follow and had to share:
To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
I am working from home today or I would have missed the arrival of not one, but two very large bulk trash hauling trucks pulling up on the block. For the past two hours, a team of workers have been loading furniture so decrepit that it would be impossible to give away on Freecycle or to have the Salvation Army or Goodwill Industries take away and resell. There have been dozens of huge plastic trash bags and who knows what else (I am only watching intermittently as work presses on) going into the trucks.
When I first moved in to my house 20 years ago December, Mrs. J was already elderly — probably in her mid to late 70s) and her son, who lived with her was not a young man. I tried being polite when I first moved in, but there was no receptivity even to ordinary saying hello and good day. The son (I had originally thought husband by his looks; he was gray, heavy, and unhealthy), used to sit on the porch at night and smoke cheap cigars that stank so much I needed to keep my front windows closed. After he died, only a few years after I had moved in, Mrs. J, started having even more difficulty connecting and making sense and was progressively more hostile in her interchanges with me. She did still go to church and people from the church would visit, unfortunately often to take advantage of her. A grand daughter also would stop by on very rare occasions in recent years (more it seemed to check out the property then to take care of her grandmother). As the years went by, the house has fallen into serious disrepair to the point that it, being attached to mine, has started impacting my house as well.
Every once and a while, Mrs. J would ask me for help. She was afraid of the young men who lived next door (who appeared based on both things I have witnessed, circumstantial evidence, and interrelationship with law enforcement authorities to be consistently involved with drugs, guns, and a variety of criminal activities). But that family had lived next door to her for years, and she did not know how to lock her door to them. She asked me what to do, but I did not really have an answer that would serve. Over the years she occasionally would come out and yell at me about the rats in her yard, even though she had open garbage cans stored on the side of her house. I did not disabuse her; what would have been the point, but I did regularly treat for rats in a way that would take care of both of our yards. A couple of years ago, when she had gotten truly frail, she came outside one day when I was working in the garden and complained to me that a homeless person she had met at church brought bed bugs into her house. I found someone from the church and asked the church to find someone to treat for the bedbugs. It appeared that the matter was resolved, because she did not bring it up again. Over a year ago, Mrs. J was hit by a bus and sustained a minor fracture to an arm. It was discovered, though, that she was incapable of taking care of herself, and she never came back.
Now the bulk trash trucks are here. What would it be like to have lived for decades with things that others see only as trash? To have had (along with whatever good) so much fear, bitterness, and frustration for that time? What will happen to the house now that the trash and the memories are being cleared out? To some extent we choose how we will live. The house itself is in structure almost identical to mine and in the same wonderful location just blocks from the US Capitol. Although the contents do not seem able to be salvaged, will someone treat the house as a treasure? Witnessing the trash hauling makes me want to be ever more mindful of what I consume (materially and energetically), what I hold on to, and what I release and send out.
I realize that this blog entry was in my drafts page; I never hit the publish button. As I ponder the few intervening weeks of snow (in some ways it feels as if time just stopped, except for the work that piled up and the lengthening of the light of day), I treat this as a reminder to myself to come back to “first principle” to respond with the most light — even in this unusually harsh winter:
On my way to Friends Meeting yesterday, I stopped at the Dupont Circle Fresh Farm Market yesterday to buy whatever was fresh. When I got in line with a daikon radish, a bunch of turnips, and a couple of leeks, I noticed the way the woman in front of me in line was holding her selection: sunchokes. Her hands were held as if she had just received prasad — the offering sometimes made after a puja so that the fruits of worship may actually be tasted and injested, incorporated with our senses and our whole bodies into our being. “Your hands and those sunchokes are so beautiful,” I said, “may I take a picture and use it for my blog?” “Sure,” she replied, “and shifted her hands a little so that it would be easier for me to frame the picture.” We talked while we waited in line about potential ways to cook sunchokes and how happy we were that the farmers (these particular farmers’ must be incredibly good at working with cold frames) were out all year.
Seeing this offering of the earth itself, the farmers who tended the earth and grew the vegetables, the workers who made and repaired the vehicles that enabled the food to be brought into the city, the city and neighborhood for allowing the market to block off a street, the shoppers for supporting it, brought me back to my contemplations this week of what “first principle” means to me. I mentioned in an earlier post that my focus for winter classes would be Anusara sequencing principles. No matter what else we are doing or focusing on, it always starts with “first principle.” The “first principle” is what we call in Anusara “opening to grace.” For me, a large part of “opening to grace” is a recognition that all the nourishment we receive is a gift. When we practice such a recognition, then we practice receptivity, openness, gratitude, courtesy, respect, delicacy, and reciprocal desire to serve and make offering. How could one mindfully receive nourishment such as this fresh, beautiful food on a bitterly cold winter day, and not want to celebrate it by giving thanks, nurturing the earth, supporting the farmers and the market, learning how to prepare it as tasty and healthful as possible, and share it and other things with those around us?
Last night in group practice, we were working on the mini-arm balances. As I demonstrated a pose, my spine shifted. From the middle thoracic vertebra right behind the heart all the way up to C7, each vertebra popped sequentially, releasing energy not only from each vertebra, but upward. I felt an incredible lightness moving from the heart space all the way through the crown of my head. We talked about it a little in practice, because the fact that some kind of opening had occurred was fully evident to everyone in the group.
As a purely physical matter, opening my thoracic spine is good. I have degeneration in my cervical and lumbar spine. Those parts of my spine are very mobile, almost unusually so, whereas my thoracic spine is quite tight. This imbalance can cause pain and muscle tension, though through therapeutic practice of the Anusara principles, I progressively find a healthy balance of stability and freedom. Go to any decent physical therapist for neck or lumbar pain, and the therapist will work to open the thoracic spine, which although it should be stiffer (being attached to the ribs and protecting the heart), likely needs to be more mobile to be in better balance with the rest of the spine.
This morning, I woke up still feeling more open around the heart space and noticing a shift in the energy in my upper back, neck, and head, and the sensation of the opening I experienced carried itself through my morning meditation.
We never know when we are going to get an opening in our practice. I keep coming to the mat and the meditation cushion because I want to be more open, more grounded, more free, more full of energy, more compassionate, more at peace, more in tune with others. It is fairly rare, though, that I experience a noticeable opening all at once (and the reason to practice should not to be to have wild moments, sensations, visions, etc).
When one comes, though, it leaves open the question: what will I do with it? Will I get absorbed in talking about it and reliving it? Will I think that I can slack in my practice because I have had a big opening? Will I return to how things were before? It is easy enough to do. Just witness the collective energy and momentary hopefulness of this country when it elected President Obama. Upon not getting instant change and relief, the country has returned to blaming, divisiveness, ineffectiveness, finger-pointing, greediness, warlikeness, and catering to the corporate war machine instead of moving towards universal health care, peace, and “green” energy consumption. It would likewise be easy for me to have enjoyed experiencing something wild and special on my mat and then go outside to walk to work and be tense and grumbly about the ice on the sidewalks, the snow in the forecast, and the limits I experience in my daily life. I know there will be some going backwards, but I will strive to take this experience to shift to a more optimal place in my practice on and off the mat.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.48, tatah dvandaha anabhighataha is translated by B.K.S. Iyengar as “from then on [after the yogi through steady practice has absorbed him/herself in the practice of yoga), the sadhaka (practitioner) is undisturbed by dualities.” This sutra follows the only two in all of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that specifically discuss asana, which Patanjali describes as a controlled and perfect ease and steadiness of mind and body.
I was thinking about the freedom from the “pairs of opposites” — pleasure and pain, etc. — when I read an article in the Washington Post yesterday dividing everyone who was impacted by the blizzard as a winner or a loser. Children off from school were winners, frustrated parents, travelers who were grounded from flying, and politicians sure to be blamed for not having planned in a Southern city to have the snow removal equipment, personnel, and budget of a city like Buffalo, NY, were losers. I am fairly certain (based on the harangues on the blogs) that the author was not alone in seeing everything as winning or losing. To me, though, it feels like one of the “afflictions” described by Patanjali. I was a grounded flyer. I was much looking forward to a trip to San Francisco to see a dear friend from college and then to attend the weekend workshop with John Friend. It would have been great fun to be there. I was disappointed. But it never would have occurred to me to label myself a loser. Do so so would just had me hold onto unhappiness.
Yoga teaches us to look for the good, to accept what we cannot change, and to seek to respond in the highest. In essence, we are changing what we can change, which is how we react. If my only reaction to the storm was pain and sadness from having the pleasure of my planned trip taken away from me, then I would in fact be a loser. If I just accept that no one can anticipate when record-breaking winter storms are going to arrive and then have the best day I can under the unavoidable circumstances, then I am a winner. I am not a winner in a game where someone else is a loser. I am not a winner in that I did not let Mother Nature win. Rather, I have learned that the steady practice of yoga makes life more easeful and delightful even in challenges and disappointments. I am motivated to practice more. The lessons learned from being confined a blizzard when I was warm, well fed, and surrounded by friends are a hopeful prelude for how the yoga will serve when I really face a challenge.
A rather conservative co-worker, who was one of the people who would have to go grocery shopping last night lest the family be without perishable food for a few days, was talking to me about the impending snowstorm (including me advising him of the one forecast for next Tuesday/Wednesday). “It shows,” he said, “how easily our infrastructure and food supply can be disrupted.” I gave it a little pause, and then replied, “this is why I talk about gardening in our own yards and switching away from agribusiness to a more sustainable and self-sustaining way of living and seek to shift myself, though it is difficult.” He said, “hmmm,” letting the idea stick in his mind, but not wanting to carry the discussion further. I know him well enough to have dropped it for the time, but also know he will think about it and perhaps over the years, for his beloved daughters or out of perceived necessity, start making small shifts.
In yoga practice, the concept of suddha vidya — illuminative wisdom — is both revealed and practiced. When we start practicing or even before, we may have occasional and early insights into fundamental truths of being, but without steady practice and contemplation they will be fleeting and not shift our way of living. If we practice and study continuously, though, our insight will become steadier, more consistent, and will start to illuminate all states of our being on and off the mat. The more I practice, the more it is illuminated for me the connection of all beings and my need to live in a way that is more open, tolerant, loving, and aligned with the complex web of our interconnection. My co-worker’s insight might not have been “yoga,” but it was indeed a moment of illuminative wisdom in its recognition of a misalignment of society that tears at the fabric of our being.