WHAT AND WHO
For the month of April, I’ll be participating in the Kiss My Asana yogathon sponsored by the Minnesota-based nonprofit Mind Body Solutions, helping to raise money to support their efforts to teach adaptive yoga. If you’d like to donate, please visit my fundraising page here. I’ll be posting updates and thoughts here as the spirit moves my asana.
In the first workshop I took with adaptive yoga teacher Matthew Sanford, in Raleigh in October 2012, I met a woman who told me a story that ended with this: “He will change your practice.” Whatever my practice was at the time, I believed her, and she was right. Profoundly right. He didn’t just change my yoga; he changed my DNA.
This woman, Ann Richardson Stevens, was the first person I met that Friday afternoon at the studio. I set my mat down next to hers and we started chatting. She had come down from her studio in Virginia Beach to help Matthew during the weekend. She told me about the work she does with wounded veterans, helping them cope with massive physical wounds and PTSD. I asked her a little about what to expect from the workshop. She looked right at me and said those words: “He will change your practice.” I believed her because I’d read Matthew’s own beautifully expressed story in his memoir “Waking.” In it, he shares how “healing stories” helped him after he became paralyzed:
“A healing story is my term for the stories we have come to believe that shape how we think about the world, ourselves, and our place in it. … Healing stories guide us through good and bad times; they can be both constructive and destructive, and are often in need of change.”
What are your stories?
I’m still working on mine. The next chapter will begin this month, when I embark on a 300-hour teacher training course in Purna Yoga in Seattle. The program will unfold throughout the year in three two-week immersions. I’m not especially nervous or anxious (okay, maybe a little), just curious. I worry that I’ll come back asking everyone I’ve taught in the past four years for a Mulligan: “I’m sorry. I’ve been doing this all wrong!”
I am already homesick (present moment awareness!) for my husband, family, friends, students and kitties but am boundlessly grateful for the support that is carrying me to this next stepping stone on my circuitous path. I’m excited for the chance to study in depth with Purna Yoga founder Aadil Palkhivala and his wife, Savitri ~ to drink at the source, as it were.
In the Purna tradition, stories are very important. Aadil is a master storyteller. In the 200-hour training that I completed in 2014 with Catharine Eberhart and Bob Maiers at Purna Yoga East in Clayton, N.C., we talked about the importance of incorporating storytelling into our teaching, as a way to inspire or educate our students, or both.
For me, this is “an area of growth.” I tell a lot of stories to myself, in my journal or in my head. Some are too private to share, and others just seem meh. I enjoy social media as a platform for sharing small stories but try to be selective about how I use them. As a lifelong lover of words, I am a sponge for other people’s stories ~ and everyone has them.
Just the other day, I received a short story from a man in line in front of me at a McDonald’s. (Don’t judge. I was on a four-hour drive. Just try getting a green smoothie along a rural interstate.). We’d both ordered and were waiting with a few other people for our food (Egg White Delight McMuffin for me). He was about six feet tall, wearing a red flannel shirt and jeans.
“How’s your day going so far?” he asked me. He seemed a little tired.
“Oh, fine,” I said. “Are you having a Monday?” It was a Monday.
“Well, it really started on Saturday, but yes.”
He told me that he works in construction but that over the weekend he had gone with his daughter on a wedding dress outing. “She’s getting married,” he said. He was working on a $30,000 kitchen somewhere, and one of his guys had just torn up the recently laid linoleum floor while installing a fridge, so his crew was having to backtrack a bit. “I hate having to do things twice,” he said. And: “I wish I could afford a kitchen that nice.” Well, I said, you are contributing your part to it. We wished each other a good day and went our separate ways.
It’s a gift to receive other people’s stories, especially the unsolicited ones, which means being a listener. This can be difficult, because in our attempt to connect with others, we often “reload” while the other person is speaking, to use Aadil’s phrase, and don’t fully hear what is being said. I’m certainly guilty of this. In his workshops, Aadil teaches us how to cultivate the skills of listening and receiving stories. After he spends ten, twenty or thirty minutes telling stories ~ about his decades of study with B.K.S. Iyengar, about the latest findings in neuroscience and yoga, about a conversation he had with his wife or daughter ~ he asks us to find a partner and summarize what he has said, taking turns for just a few minutes. Whoever goes second is not to repeat what the first person said but must fill in the blanks, adding anything that was left out.
Matthew Sanford, an Iyengar teacher, is also a great storyteller and encourages his students, many of whom are yoga teachers and health-care professionals, to mine their lives for their own stories. “Wake up and see your story,” he has said. “Come home to yourself so you can help others do the same.”
Sidebar: Many of the Mind Body Solutions students in the Minneapolis area share their stories during teacher trainings at the studio and volunteer to be students in our training classes. You can read more about them in their own words in the Adapt This blog here.
In a recent public forum filmed for Twin Cities Public Television, Matthew and fellow panelist Kevin Kling talked about the power of stories as healing tools. “People don’t recognize their own stories,” Matthew said. Part of the goal of that discussion and of his work, he said, is to encourage folks to “think about your life in terms of a narrative.”
“You have to know your own story to serve others,” Matthew said during the forum. “If you don’t know your own story you’ll get consumed. You’ll get eaten up by the wind by giving yourself away. The need for your own story and your own narrative is a boundary, and the world needs you to know your story, because it needs you.”
Matthew also frequently talks about the power of being a good listener, which, for a yoga teacher, is as important a skill as seeing bodies and tuning in to what is not seen or heard. Absence can be a profound presence ~ anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one or a loss of any kind knows this (which, eventually, is all of us). “How do you sit in the presence of suffering without trying to fix or be consumed by it?” Matthew often asks. “Do you know how to support someone else’s silence? To sit and listen someone into speech?” He attributes the idea in that last line to Parker Palmer, who attributes the idea to theologian Nelle Morton, who once wrote of “hearing human beings to speech.”
Sidebar: Do you see the lineage with attribution, which is also a key aspect of yoga traditions? That’s another great thing about great words and stories: The respected and timeless ones never die.
Receiving stories is an act of grace, the kind of grace that Matthew talks about being open to in yoga poses. The practice is to pay attention to what’s going on in your body, so that when alignment or inspiration or a bolt of truth or an authentic connection occurs, you have the grace to land it. So why tell stories? As Matthew said during the forum (which is also available in audio format here), healing stories can forge compassion and underscore our shared humanity. But “every story needs a listener,” he said.
“A good story is when the reader or the audience recognizes their struggle in your struggle. So you tell a story not for catharsis for yourself, not to brag, not to boast, but to offer an invitation for another person to participate.” In the way that a skilled yoga teacher helps people along their own paths ~ not the teacher’s path ~ “a good listener helps people recognize their own stories.”
WHERE AND HOW
Writing can of course be incredibly cathartic, therapeutic and healing in the privacy of one’s own head and heart or a journal, but sharing a story publicly requires crossing what can be a deep and wide crevasse. There should be a point and an illustration of a transformation. The decision to share is entirely personal and requires careful word choice and discernment. In either case, the exploration requires a great deal of often difficult svadhyaya, the yogic principle of self-study.
As a journalist, I have read thousands and thousands of stories over the years, many inspirational, many more horrific. As a copy editor, I have helped to shepherd stories about other people, crafted by other people, into light. I was paid to be a neutral witness for a long time, ensuring that the questions of What-Who-Why-Where-How-When were answered fairly and accurately, but I couldn’t help but ingest the content of what I was reading. Over time, it became harder and harder to metabolize the horrific parts, to borrow a concept expressed by Eve Ensler. Yoga is helping me delve into my own stories, and my time studying with Matthew and Aadil has been invaluable in supporting me in that work.
The body receives and creates, holds and tells stories. It remembers everything that ever happens to it, the good and the bad, even if we think the mind does not. Some stories fester, get stuck and hold us back, causing dis-ease. These are the ones that especially need to be stretched, expanded and released ~ owned, as Anne Lamott says: We own everything that ever happens to us. By rewiring ourselves through unraveling such stories, it’s possible to begin to heal a fractured mind-body connection.
But here’s the thing, a big thing: It’s one thing to identify and study your own stories; it’s another to get stuck in them, to stay in the same grooves or yogic samskaras and remain in perhaps unnecessary agony (See: “Groundhog Day“). Years ago I took a workshop with senior Iyengar teacher Manouso Manos, who was suffering with chronic back and hip pain. He was trying to cope and heal himself to avoid surgery. In so many words, he said, according to my notes, “So I’m the guy with the bad back. That’s my story.” But don’t get attached to your own stories, he said. “Watch to see how upset you get about things. Change your perspective. Every day we practice is an experiment, and some days are failed experiments. Keep mining the little kid in you as you grow older and resistant to change.”
Yoga provides a toolbox for not just identifying your stories but changing them. I’m still figuring out how to do that for myself, how to get my right sacroiliac joint and left trapezius out of their seriously irritating and soul-sucking co-dependent relationship. Many of us are drawn to yoga first as a way to experience the outer body, the physical self. I certainly was. But over time, if you are paying attention, your body starts to tell you stories. Your quadriceps and hamstrings might talk to each other. Your neck might scream at you. Your lower back might ache. You might notice areas that are dull and lifeless, areas that lack intelligence, as Iyengar teachers would say. On the plus side, your upper chest might blossom. Your heart might crack wide open. It’s a process not so much of learning but unlearning, of uncoiling stories that might not even be true anymore, if they ever were. Matthew’s mission and that of his nonprofit is to transform trauma, loss and disability into hope and potential. That has universal application, and yoga is one way to explore that level of healing. Sharing stories is one of yoga’s many tools.
Sidebar: To learn more about Matthew’s story and why he is working toward “a health-care system where it didn’t take me 12 years to reconnect my mind to my body,” watch this five-minute video.
Some stories surface immediately through blunt triggers. Others take time to excavate. The oldest and deepest ones often require silence and space, a retreat from noise and our data-overloaded world. The second of Patanjali’s yoga sutras is an invitation to this journey: Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. But there are 194 sutras after that! Part of the practice involves tuning in to your own silence, a subject that Matthew talks about with poetic artistry in his memoir. By allowing ourselves to sit in quietude from time to time with our silence, our stories can bubble up in the pauses ~ the gaps between breaths, between heartbeats. (Although I often find that they bubble up while I’m doing dishes, walking around a lake, driving or lying awake at 4 a.m., wondering what I’m going to teach that day.) Yoga is in large part the art of paying attention. In my experience, this journey inward ~ even if it begins by studying your legs in supta padangusthasana ~ unavoidably requires listening to the heart. That is where the mind-body connection is ultimately healed. It is where we often really need to get unstuck, where the silence can sing. As Matthew once said, “Trust what you feel in your body. Don’t be afraid of your heart.”
I really don’t know where my teaching will lead me, or how much of my story I will continue to share. But I know that I must continue to keep digging for it and moving forward so that I can help others do the same.
“Concentrate in the heart. Enter into it; go within and deep and far, as far as you can. Gather all the strings of your consciousness that are spread abroad, roll them up and take a plunge and sink down. A fire is burning there, in the deep quietude of the heart. It is the divinity in you — your true being. Hear its voice, follow its dictates.” ~ The Mother of Sri Aurobindo’s ashram