The certainty of change

I wish I understood the beauty
in leaves falling. To whom
are we beautiful
as we go?
~ David Ignatow, “Three in Transition”

I took this picture while driving back home from Purna Yoga East on my first post-op drive. A whole mile, round trip, woo-hoo!

In Hip Rehab Land, this has been a week of benchmarks to celebrate. Yet I’m feeling the melancholy of the opening lines of David Ignatow’s poem. On Monday, one day shy of the four-week anniversary of my hip surgery, I graduated to a hardware-free life. My post-op physical therapist said that I could march forth without my crutch and brace. At the two-week mark, I had stepped down (or up) to one crutch and daytime-only brace-wearing. This week, my therapist also said that I could try driving for short distances. Freedom! Right?

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” ~ Ferris Bueller

On Tuesday, 28 days after the procedure, I went for my first apparatus-free, unaccompanied outdoor walk. I took a pair of my husband’s shorts that needed mending to the cleaners just up the street from our house (#urbanliving is awesome). I wended my way home by way of Main Street, soaking up the warm, sunny fall weather that I’d been watching mostly from my bedroom window, and taking in downtown Clayton sights I hadn’t seen on foot for a month. I walked for a happily pokey 40 minutes. When I got home, I went for my first post-op drive, fairly ceremoniously to the yoga studio where I teach. It’s half a mile from my house. Normally, at least in decent weather, I walk. I returned the containers that had held the special deliveries of food that students and fellow teachers at Purna Yoga East had given Matthew and me in the first few weeks after my arthroscopic adventure. I also did my first post-op hang from the yoga wall, tractioning my upper spine in the “parachute” pose. Sweet, stretchy, crackling goodness ensued. (I don’t have a visual for that. But it was good.)

“Life is so short, we must move very slowly.” ~ Thai proverb

I was grateful to walk and drive without pain, of course, apart from some compensatory and normal, lingering post-op aches. My right thigh is still partially numb, and my legs aren’t on the same planet yet. Mars, meet Venus. As far as I can tell, the surgery was a “success,” and my hip joint feels great if still limited in its range of motion. I’m okay with that. After having torn cartilage repaired with sutures and anchors and having the head of my femur shaved by way of two tiny holes in my upper thigh, this is hardly surprising. It will be some time before my body or the rest of me is ready to resume teaching. I miss my students and the community that has been my anchor for the past few years, but I know I’ll be back. This blip is temporary and necessary. On Monday, as part of my morning physical therapy routine, I did my first post-op supta padangusthasana, aka the big-toe stretch, aka a powerful hamstring opener. It told me a lot about how far I still have to go, with tightness in my inner right thigh (the surgical side) and left hamstrings, but Tuesday’s more even-keeled version reminded me that progress is possible. The journey is the destination, and all that.

“It takes time to slow down.” ~ Leslie Waugh

Other post-op firsts:
Day 12, Oct. 8: Went up and down the stairs in the house (using both crutches). Twice!
Day 17, Oct. 13: Got down onto the floor (and back up!). Shaved my legs (no blood!).
Day 26, Oct. 22: Took a bath in an actual tub.

“If you ain’t first, you’re last.” ~ Ricky Bobby

I’m not obsessed with keeping score, but I’ve wanted to document my recovery, at least for myself. My physical therapist has said all along that I’m “doing great” and that everything is on track ~ but recovery from surgery for a torn labrum and femoroacetabular impingement is a marathon, not a sprint, much like pronouncing “femoroacetabular.” As grateful as I am to be moving about more freely, I find myself missing the permission that the early stages of my recovery, complete with the props, had given me to slow down ~ even while I was trying to make the most of my down time. I was on forced rest, and, to a degree, I still am. My husband, bless him, helped me do things that I haven’t need help with since I was in diapers. In the first week or so after the procedure, he helped me dress and put my socks and shoes on. He covered my bandages in plastic wrap when I took showers. He set up the ice-water machine time and time again. He cooked and took over doing the laundry. I’ve truly been spoiled by all the help I’ve received. Moral of that story: Self-sufficiency is highly overrated. Accepting help is an act of grace.

“Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go.” ~ Bob Dylan

So without the hardware, do I have to speed back up? How can I justify lolling around on my bed, reading or writing or napping, enjoying a breeze through the open windows while I rest my hip flexors? Why do I feel like I need an excuse to pull over and rest once in a while? What about just Being, and Not-Doing? (More on that later. Maybe. Probably.) There’s a wistfulness in the temporality of small moments, as in watching a leaf fall, or in longer moments, such as autumn itself. As the seasons change, the light changes. Colors change. Leaves, in their deciduous poignancy, flame out from green into blazes of red, orange and yellow. The beauty and the grief mix in what a Japanese scholar called “mono no aware,” the sadness that comes from the awareness of impermanence. I have felt this as I’ve watched my nephew grow up way too quickly. Where will his joy and innocence go?

“The trouble is, you think you have time.” ~ Jack Kornfield

In yoga, that awareness of impermanence, often described as a fear, is called abhinevesha. It is the final of the five klesha, or obstacles, on the yogic path. It is often translated as the fear of death, but I feel it as the fear of not living fully, of not realizing one’s full potential or dharma ~ in part, of not seizing the “marrow” out life, as Henry David Thoreau said of his retreat to the woods and wish to “live deliberately.” It’s about the desire we all have to be seen and heard ~ and, from time to time, to be quiet. To be of service ~ and, from time to time, to be beholden to no one. To feel connected to something larger than ourselves ~ and, from time to time, to relish in solitude. The Heartfull™ Meditation techniques of Purna Yoga have helped me dive into both the universal purpose that we all share ~ to live from love ~ and into my own individual dharma. But on the yogic path, it’s said that people with the strongest attachments (the klesha of raga) and aversions (dvesha) are those who struggle the most with abhinevesha. Both involve rigidity and the fear of change. Resisting change is as futile as trying to control the weather or stop summer from sliding into fall. In a way, more than learning how to live, we are here on Earth not just live but to learn how to cope with loss. 

“In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”
~ T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Life is nothing if not constant change, a flow of gains and losses. Purna Yoga has helped me cope with many vagaries of life, and I’m applying my practice to my hip rehab, as I did to my prehab. I’m fortunate that I can financially take a break from teaching, which is physically (and in every other way) demanding, and from my copy-editing job, which is also demanding but, at the opposite end of the physical spectrum, sedentary. I can’t move or sit the way I used to just yet, or do any one physical thing for any great length of time, and I don’t know what my new normal will be. I’m in an in-between state, in the pause, yet everything is still happening. My surgeon and I expect that I’ll regain full range of motion. I will be grateful to just be out of the pre-op pain that lingered for so long. Chronic pain can make you nuts. (More on that later, too. Maybe. Probably.)

“True yoga is not about the shape of your body,
but the shape of your life.”
~ Aadil Palkhivala, co-founder of Purna Yoga

I miss the stability that the hip brace gave me. It reminded me to move slowly and carefully. But, as with all props, I remember how it felt, so on my walk to town on Tuesday, I embodied the feeling of security as I took each step deliberately. I used the new samskara, or pattern, of support to guide me. I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere. The walking was the doing. However, I don’t miss the brace’s too-wide Velcro girdle of a waistband, which was uncomfortable after a meal or while sitting and as an unwelcome boob shelf. (Speaking of which, I won’t miss not having to wear a bra. Ladies, amiright?) I miss the support I received from the crutches, but I don’t miss the wrist strain that came from using just one crutch. The booster seats are still on the two downstairs toilets. I don’t know if I’ll miss those, because when I sit on them my feet don’t touch the floor. But in my extended healing story, these weird little griefs are part of a practice in adaptability and learning how to cope with new presences ~ and new absences ~ whether temporary or permanent. With larger losses, past and unmet. With the certainty of change.

If You Should Go
By Countee Cullen

Love, leave me like the light,
The gently passing day;
We would not know, but for the night,
When it has slipped away.
Go quietly; a dream,
When done, should leave no trace
That it has lived, except a gleam
Across the dreamer’s face.

Shattered by kindness

Two open windows: One is a crime scene; the other, a symbol of rest and a world temporarily out of reach. Each is a bittersweet source of solace.

I was robbed last month. My rental car was vandalized, and my purse was stolen. I was in Bellevue, Wash., for yoga teacher training. That Monday, Sept. 11, was our only day off during our intense two-week session. These single free days are highly prized. I had lined up a full slate: Errands in the morning before a lunch date at noon, followed by a salt spa session and a massage, then a group dinner arranged by friends in the training to celebrate my upcoming birthday and those of two other women in the class with September birthdays. It was a beautiful, bright, warm day. I had some extra time in between my errands and meeting my lunch date, so I stopped at the Bellevue Botanical Garden to walk around and call my parents. It’s one of my favorite oases in the area, and its dahlias are especially spectacular. The three-hour time lag from the East Coast is just weird enough to make it tough to stay in touch in real time, so I was looking forward to making the connection and hearing the news from home in my mom’s and dad’s voices.

In fuzzy hindsight, I might have seen a gang of six or eight young people walking along the edge of the parking lot. I can’t remember if I actually saw them or conjured up the image later. As I parked at the edge of a row on the far side of the lot, I was preoccupied with time ~ how much did I have before I needed to leave for the restaurant? ~ in addition to thinking about the training, about something I wanted to share with a friend when we resumed, about my aching hip and my struggles with the course, about my upcoming surgery and all that it might entail, about being far from home, and about how the rest of the year might unfold during my extended siesta.

The robbers must have watched me park and stow my purse. I placed it on the floor of the front passenger seat, under the glove box, and covered it with a fleece jacket. It felt as if I had put it into a safe cave, because the interior was black and the nook was deep. They must have seen me leave the car holding only my phone and putting the keys in my jeans pocket. When I walked back through the lot no more than 40 minutes later, I was shocked to see that the front passenger window had been smashed out. Although “shocked” feels like an inadequate adjective. Time stopped for a few heartbeats as I stood still and stared at the yawning hole. My thought spiral, along with some earthy and unyogic language, went something like: Really?! Is that what I think it is?! I’m seeing it, but I don’t believe it. Seriously?! I walked the remaining 30 feet or so to the car, realizing more with each step that yes, indeed, that was MY car. My little bubble had been smashed, along with the poor Yaris’s window. And yet, my reaction boiled down to just two thoughts: How could I have been so stupid to leave my purse in the car? And, BUT I HAD PLANS!

After freaking out for a minute that felt like an hour, I stopped to plot the next best steps. No one else was around, although there were plenty of other cars in the lot. Calling 911 seemed like a good idea, if a bit extreme and futile, so I did that. Then I called my husband to break the news. I was pick-pocketed several years ago on our vacation to Madrid, so I was dreading having to tell him that I had yet again been irresponsible. But I knew that he had an organized system of tracking our credit cards, so he could cancel them quickly. And I know that I can always count on him, in an actual crisis or a manufactured one. He lovingly told me to calm down and started taking care of business.

One of Bellevue’s finest arrived a few minutes later. Officer Martin was so incredibly gentle and kind. I don’t know what I expected, mercifully never having needed to call the cops or 911 anywhere before, but he seemed genuinely offended on my behalf. Seattle and its burbs are friendly enough, but not in a Southern “Come see us” kind of way. He said that the garden lot was a known target, and that a family had been arrested for “car prowls” a few weeks earlier. He took my story and cleaned off the glass shards that had fallen onto the driver’s seat. The robbers did a professional job of breaking out nearly the whole passenger-side window, so glass was everywhere. Fun tidbit: Shattered car glass is the color of swimming-pool water. It’s kind of mesmerizing, apart from the fact that it’s always the result of violence.

Officer Martin gave me his card in case I needed to add anything to the report. It was a clean break-in. The robbers were single-focused, taking only my purse ~ not the jacket that had covered it, not my truly priceless teacher training manuals and notebooks (thank you, Jesus), not the gifts for other people that I had in the back seat. I was mildly panicked about how I’d fly home without any ID, how I’d get money to get through the rest of the week, how I’d drive without my license (with the incident report number, as it turned out). How I’d get to lunch. Lunch!!! My wallet and its contents were all I was worried about at the time. I had been back home for a week before I realized what else I’d lost: All of my keys, my prescription eyeglasses, and a collection of cards, including those for medical insurance, Social Security and museum memberships.

The robbers successfully charged about $3,000 in two transactions at a Fred Meyer store, and they made attempts on other cards. A detective called me at home about two weeks later to get more information about the transactions, in hopes that authorities could spot the suspects on video feeds. He said that gangs such as the one that likely busted into my car had been targeting parking lots at area gardens and trailheads, watching people park and doing quick work of stealing cash and credit cards. They use the loot to buy gift cards, which they take to drugstores to convert into cash to be wired.

Back to the scene of the crime. Still alone in the parking lot, I called Thrifty to sort out what to do about the car. I talked with an amazingly empathetic voice on other end, attached to a man named John. Up until then, I had just felt angry, inconvenienced and ashamed. Thank God I at least had my phone. He almost made me cry, reassuring me that leaving my purse in the locked car was not a license for someone else to take it. Several times, he said, “I’m so sorry this happened to you.” I started to feel sorry, too, but I didn’t have time for a pity party. I HAD PLANS. He explained how to deal with the insurance and told me that I’d have to drive to the airport to get a new rental car. So much for the massage.

At some point during this wrinkle in my personal time-space continuum, I called my lunch date to bump our meeting from noon to 12:30. I said I’d explain why when I saw her. Amazingly, I made it on time, after a nice al fresco drive. I had to ask my friend to pay for a meal that I’d wanted to cover, however, which was awkward. Afterward our yummy Thai meal, I relaxed into my new plans and drove to the Seattle airport in the sparkling weather before the epically bad rush-hour traffic began. The sweet woman who greeted me in the Thrifty return lanes was, like Officer Martin and Roadside Assistance John, incredibly offended on my behalf. I was just chagrined to be returning a broken car. Looking at the shattered window and the pebbles of glass still covering the right half of the interior, she said more than once how sorry she was that this had happened to me, again sending me to the verge of tears. I honestly hadn’t felt that violated, but the adrenaline was wearing off. It was just a window, just a purse full of things that could be replaced, just an inconvenience. No one got hurt. This was not a tragedy. Worse things have happened to other people, are happening, will happen. BUT I HAD PLANS.

I made it to the dinner in plenty of time, picking up one of my birthday buddies along the way. It was a sweet gathering of several yoga friends, but a wee bit of PTSD started to creep in about halfway through. When I mentioned what had happened, I was showered with offers of empathy and assistance, offers that continued throughout the week and melded with birthday gifts. (I turned 50 on Sept. 13.) I’d been robbed of some replaceable stuff and a self-indulgent afternoon, but I received so many gifts of kindness. I was sad to lose the purse because it had been a gift from a friend a few years ago, but it was well used and falling apart. I’d been in the market for a new wallet, and I needed to upgrade my eyeglass prescription this fall anyway. I had enough lip gloss to supply a runway fashion show, despite hardly ever using it. All trivial stuff. My husband overnighted me some cash and my passport, and a new credit card soon followed. The woman I was staying with loaned me a fanny pack. One of the birthday gifts I received later in the week from someone who didn’t know what had been stolen: lip gloss.

I wasn’t surprised by all the kindness I received, just incredibly moved. The violation was exceeded by an exponential amount of compassion. I’m under no illusions that I’m immune from invasive opportunism, just as I’m under no illusions that my body is infallible. But when your personal peace is shattered, how do you react? As a yoga teacher, I often have to change my plans for a class, whether before it even starts or as it unfolds. As with so much else in life, plans must come with room for spontaneity and improvisation. We have to be ready to be nimble and able to appropriately adapt to change with equanimity. Rigidity is futile. You know the cliches: Life is what happens while you’re busy making plans. And: How do make God laugh? Tell him your plans. Granted, this shattering of my peace was not on a scale with a tragedy or any of the global disasters unfolding right now. But it was interesting. All life is yoga, as Sri Aurobindo said. 

The next day, when the training resumed, our teacher, Aadil Palkhivala, talked about the power of choice and change. He gave us a brief physics lesson about the nature of matter and the relationship of the nucleus of an atom to its electrons. Do not ask me to explain that part ~ I was a social sciences major ~ but it included the phenomenon that electrons sometimes disappear. He used the analogy of the difference between potential and kinetic energy to illustrate the power that we all have to pause before we act or react. It’s the same poetic power that rests in the natural pause between breaths ~ the crest between an inhalation and an exhalation, the trough between an exhalation and an inhalation. It’s the space between repeated chants of OM, space that is both resonant and expectant. In that space is the power to reflect before taking an action. In Purna Yoga, we further emphasize acting from the heart and soul, not the mind or the ego. “Be more conscious of what you are about to do rather than what you’ve done,” Aadil said. “You control the unexpressed.”

Have you ever wanted a do-over? I really wanted one at about 11:40 a.m. in Bellevue on Sept. 11. Oh, how I wished I’d not left my purse in the car. Such a simple thing I could have not done. Had I paused before getting out of the car at the garden, I might have made a wiser choice. But I was too much in the future. I broke the most woo-woo, cliched rule of yoga: mindfulness. Be in the present moment. “Wherever you are, be all there,” as Ram Dass said. Had I stopped to do a mental centering snack, a hallmark of the Heartfull™ Meditation practice developed by Savitri, Aadil’s wife and with him the co-founder of Purna Yoga, I might have made a more common-sense call. D’oh. I know this stuff!!! I do it every morning!!! In theory, also throughout the day and before I go to bed!! I teach it, for heaven’s sake!!! Three exclamation points mean I’m really serious!!! We also had an entire lecture from a visiting teacher exploring why we don’t use proven tools that we have at our disposal to make life a little easier. I suppose it’s partly because we love our karma ~ because repetitive patterns, or samskaras, are familiar, and familiarity is comfortable ~ more than we are willing to risk doing something different. I can’t count the number of times I’ve left my purse in a locked car at home, but usually for only brief periods. This time, the outcome was different. “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know,” Pema Chodron said. Perhaps we set ourselves up for the lessons that our souls most need to learn.

I’ve thought often about the shattered car window and the robbers’ surgical precision in liberating me of my credit cards and naivete. I almost envy their focus. Since having hip surgery on Sept. 26, my main daily view has been through our master bedroom windows. Our king-size bed has served many purposes in the past two weeks (G-rated, people), besides sleeping. It’s a good size to use for my twice-daily physical therapy exercises, since I can’t get down to and up from the floor yet. At 5-foot-3, I just fit. It’s close to a bathroom, so I haven’t had to hobble too far to the toilet, while wearing a brace and using crutches. It’s close to an electrical outlet, so in the first few days after the procedure, I could be tethered to the ice water machine that soothed the post-op pain and swelling. I can lie on it for my prescribed hip-flexor-releasing belly rest, while reading or napping. (Multitasking is a hard samskara to break). I’m not standing in a parking lot, in shock, like a lost electron 2,500 miles from home. Most of the time, on the bed, I’m lying still, peacefully at home, in my house and in my body.

It’s from that prone position that I can look outside, onto the external world. In the first week after my surgery, the weather was spectacular: warm, sunny, dry. These were perfect fall days, the ones that come in crystal bursts in North Carolina as summer tries to hold on, with crisp blue skies and a nice breeze ~ not unlike the day I was robbed. I opened the bedroom windows to allow the outside in. Normally, I’d have been out in all that gorgeousness. I’d be walking to the studio to take or teach a class. I’d go take a picture of the freakishly large, turmeric-colored brain-shaped fungi in our front yard, or the changing leaves on the dogwood in the back. But I’m on an extended pause, taking the time I need to heal properly from a long-standing painful and limiting situation. Now my view of an open window is different. My senses of time and space have been altered, but in good ways. I’ve had to let go of going and doing and planning and trying to prove myself and just BE. I’m limited, but it feels like freedom. I’ve left the house fewer than a dozen times in the two weeks since the surgery, and most of those excursions have been to physical therapy. While I wear the brace, I can’t flex my hip beyond 90 degrees, and I’m limited to about 30 degrees in the hip’s other motions. But that circumscription of my range in both the outer world and my inner world is actually liberating. I’m free to luxuriate in healing and receive the support to do so.

As I surrendered to a new afternoon plan after the robbery, I’m surrendering to a new plan of rehabilitation and healing more than just my hip. I am taking the time to show my hip, my body, the kindness that it needs to recover from a precise but nonetheless invasive procedure. Space was made in my hip socket to access the areas that needed repairs, and that cutting and spreading have left some interesting residue, such as a patch of numbness on my outer thigh (I’m told that this is normal and temporary). This was my third surgery under anaesthesia, so I’m used to unexpected post-op weirdness. From the photos taken during the procedure, I can see that extra tear (which the surgeon repaired) and the torn labrum before and after it was repaired. Below the opening around the labral tear I can see the inflammation and redness in the joint capsule, likely the source of a lot of my pain. I can see the congenitally abnormal bumps and sloped groove on my femoral head, and the “after” pictures of its smoothness. The doctor’s report noted that this part of the procedure “did leave the patient with stable smooth bony rims.” I have stable, smooth, bony rims! With commas! I like to think that he got rid of the troublesome excess bone the way the police officer swept the glass away from my driver’s seat. Both cleared me a new, less painful path. Like the long list of people who helped me after the robbery, my immensely kind and professional surgeon and his team took great care of me, fixing the labrum with an “excellent anatomical repair,” and I must honor his protocol ~ his plans ~ for recovery. I waited a long time to have this procedure ~ I planned a lot of things for it and around it ~ and I want the best possible outcome. I want to control the as yet unexpressed, or perhaps simply let some of it unfold on its own. But as Savitri said during this last portion of our 2,000-hour training that both the soul and the ego like to make plans. It’s part of our homework to discern which is in the driver’s seat. So to speak. To me, this is partly the meaning of Patanjali’s sutra II.16: Heyam duhkham anāgatam: “The misery which is not yet come can and is to be avoided.” Enlightenment in this lifetime, yay!!! Get out of karma now!!!

As I write this last bit from bed, a heavy rain is falling. I can see the drops splashing off the street as cars drive through them and streams of water cascade off our roof outside the window. Thunder rumbles in the humid air. The cleansing invites a slowing down. The water nourishes the yellow and purple mums that I’ve received as gifts in the stream of kindness that has washed over me during my recuperation, from friends, fellow teachers and students. Once the water stops falling, the view may be different. Clouds may clear. The future is uncertain, as is some of our control over it. A silvery crack of lightning suggests that what was shattered can be reassembled into something new. Electrons can reorganize themselves. Matter can take on new meaning. Kindness is an open window. The potential for giving and receiving is infinite.

Stop the badness

Do you think you have a “bad” back? Or a bad knee, hip or shoulder? You don’t. Please, can we stop this badness?

When I first received the diagnosis of a labral tear with a congenital hip socket abnormality two and a half years ago, the chiropractor who delivered the news told me that I had a “defect.” I felt as if he’d punched me. Up until then, we’d had a fine relationship. He often talked about his daughter and her love life and college plans, his dysfunctional homeowners’ association, his hobbies. But I was in pain, and I had been for a long time, and he added to it.

Dr. So-and-So had suspected that I had a torn labrum (cartilage in the hip socket) after reviewing the X-ray that I had requested when the pain he’d been treating around my sacroiliac joint went off the charts during a yoga teacher training course in April 2015. A subsequent MRI confirmed the diagnosis and also revealed an impingement (misshapen femoral head), which likely caused or, at the very least, exacerbated the tear. I knew that he was just the messenger, but I also knew what treatment for a torn labrum potentially meant for my fledgling teaching career: significant derailment. Granted, this was not news of a terminal illness, and I managed the condition for more than two years before having surgery.

But “defect”? What I heard and internalized was: “You are defective. Broken. Bad. Imperfect. Sullied. Flawed. A fraud. No good. Bye-bye, yoga. Try something else.”

Minnie Pearl.

I know he didn’t mean any ill will, and if I’d had more of my wits about me, I would have had an adult conversation with him about his poor choice of words. But I was mildly deranged, and I couldn’t focus on semantics. Besides, he was reading off the radiologist’s report, which indeed noted a “defect.” A friend later suggested that I call it a “quirk,” a more neutral term that I liked and employed when describing the situation to others. The word has a jocular connotation, as if referring to an eccentric aunt or, say, comedian Minnie Pearl, with her ubiquitous straw hat, adorned with fake flowers and a dangling price tag. “HowDEE!”

So it breaks my heart when students tell me they have a bad back, a bad hip, or a bad anything. No! No, no, nooooo!!! I suggest to them that the aching body part just wants some love and compassion. Pain, at the very least, is information, and the body part that’s talking to you just wants your attention, like a stroppy toddler. How do you feel if and when you call part of yourself bad? Imagine that your aching body part is a beloved in pain. Would you call her bad? People who are considered bad are shunned. Sidelined. Tossed out. Punished. Ignored. Put in a corner. (“Nobody puts Baby in a corner!”) Is that how you would want a suffering loved one ~ or any living creature ~ to be treated? To have their pain heaped with pain?

I’m not ignoring the evil in the world, which is readily on display, and I’m not talking about the acute pain that comes with, say, a god-forbid broken leg or heart attack and needs immediate attention. This “bad” attitude toward pain in chronic conditions is more insidious. It creates separation. To label something “bad” sets up an Us vs. Them mentality, a fight. It is full of fear and the judgment of Otherness. And fear and judgment lead to war. The bad thing becomes an object to be repelled, denied, partitioned, conquered. I know about the fear behind my own pain. But I also think that if we don’t learn to deal with our fears and pains in healthier ways, we’ll keep going to war ~ against ourselves, and others. We’ll keep shredding our shared humanity. Haven’t we had enough war?

The ways we talk to ourselves and about ourselves have repercussions. If everything is energy, a thought is a charged thing. Thoughts take the form of words, which have meanings, and words and thoughts get tangled up in feelings. We act from feelings, some of which are painful. If the results are violent and create more pain for ourselves and others, perhaps we need new dialogues, new ways for dealing with and talking about pain that don’t end in inner and outer wars. We need to stop the badness. We need to create healthy spaces ~ healthy forms of separation ~ in which to have conversations with our ailing body parts, to ask them what they need. Otherwise, the cycles of trauma will be perpetuated and perpetrated endlessly.

Two things that helped me reshape my attitude toward my hip and pain in general are my writing practice and my Purna Yoga practice. I’ve learned how to listen to my little and large aches and pains, and how to treat them. In writing, I can purge my pain onto a neutral piece of paper and release some of the charge around it. I can excavate some of the many stories, true and untrue, around an injury and my attitudes about my body in a safe way, a way that no one else gets to judge.* By objectifying my stories, I can face them, own them, transform and release them. I can choose my own words and write new endings. This is a profound form of healing, one that doesn’t necessarily mean that pain will completely disappear. I’ve never been under any illusion that I’ll have a life free of pain, but I clearly needed better skills to deal with it. Who doesn’t?

*Sidebar, speaking of judgment: When I told Dr. So-and-So that I was not going to immediately follow his recommendation for surgery, his whole demeanor toward me changed dramatically. It’s hard to put his reaction into words, but I felt as if he slammed a bank-vault door shut between us, and I’d been visiting him regularly for a few years. His body language instantly changed, and he went from being collegial to borderline petulant. He went from being a partner in my wellness to an adversary, asking almost with an eyeroll, “Why would you not want surgery?” (That’s a topic for another blog post.) What I felt him say was: “How dare you question and defy me!” I never went back to him. It’s possible that I misread his reaction, and I regret not having a better conversation with him. I appreciate that he correctly guessed my condition and helped me get a diagnosis. But I’ve also learned to trust my instincts.

Through my Purna Yoga practice, I was able to radically adapt my asana to my shifting needs and abilities. I studied in my body what hurt and what did not. I became much more gentle with myself and spent more time in restorative poses, which my nervous system has needed for a long time anyway. I begn to stop fighting my body. Through the lifestyle component of our practice, I began taking supplements to support the bone and cartilage situation. When I was very, very good, I ate an anti-inflammatory, ayurvedically appropriate diet. Our Heartfull Meditation, as developed by Savitri, was especially dear in helping me to get quiet and clear inside and listen to my inner voice for guidance.

About a week before my surgery, I got trained on how to use the crutches I’d need for a few weeks afterward. To navigate steps, the physical therapist told me, “Go up with the good leg and down with the bad.” Ack! I wanted to yelp: “They’re both good! My poor right leg never did anything to anyone. It’s just suffering.” I didn’t correct him. I should have. (Part of my endless growth through this experience has been learning how to be my best health-care advocate and questioning authority figures, as you might have surmised by now. But that’s also a topic for another blog post.) Instead, I changed “bad” to “affected,” and repeated the instructions back to him with my own words.

On the morning of the surgery, an extremely kind pre-op nurse helped set me up with a fancy purple gown, an IV, heart monitor pads, a few pain pills for good measure with the first water I’d had in nine hours and, best of all, socks. Good gracious, hospitals are cold. “Okay, let me have your good leg,” she said, as she slipped a sock over my left foot, “and …” ~ bless her heart, she caught herself ~ “… well, they’re both good, but … .” She didn’t finish her sentence.

The remnants of my pre-surgery hip branding, “LW” with a purple heart. Plus the dermal confetti of stretch marks.

The nurse gave me a purple marker and told me to initial my hip. I resisted the urge to write “THIS ONE!” surrounded by arrows and instead simply wrote “LW,” with a heart. I figured the heart would make my surgeon smile, and it represented the attitude that I’d cultivated about the whole ordeal.

One week after arthroscopic surgery, I’m on the road to a good recovery, with physical therapy visits scheduled for several weeks. My homework includes riding a stationary bike for 20 minutes twice a day, and several rounds of isometric exercises. To that I will add having a conversation with my therapist about what a good leg is.

Embracing props

My rehab stationary bike, adorned with my hip brace, raised toilet seat and grabber, with a walker and crutches against the wall.

Friday, Sept. 29, 2017. It’s Day Three after my arthroscopic hip surgery, and I’m resisting the urge to ditch my crutches. As prescribed, I’ve been bearing about 50% of my weight on the affected leg since immediately after the procedure, with no pain while walking. But I know that I need to heed my surgeon’s rehab protocol and take things slowly to maximize healing. The crutches are part of a toolbox I assembled before the procedure, based on the doctor’s recommendations and advice gleaned from online groups. Torn labrums with FAI (femoroacetabular impingement) are being treated more and more frequently as awareness of the conditions grows, and arthroscopy for the repairs has come a long way in the past decade.

In Purna Yoga, we use props almost as appendages, including blocks, belts, bolsters, blankets, chairs and, my favorite, the wall. Our asana lineage is descended directly from B.K.S. Iyengar, who pioneered the use of props to maximize not the outward, cookie-cutter appearance of poses, but their potential to cultivate the free flow of energy through the subtle body.

Props are used to remove obstacles, not to create them.

Yes, there are basic alignment points to look for in the external asana, mainly because of safety concerns. A prop should enhance, not detract, from a pose; poses should be customized to fit an individual’s body, not vice versa. No two bodies are alike, so why should any two poses be alike from one body to another? In addition to enhancing alignment and safety, props create a proprioceptive boundary, telling the nervous system where the body is in space and creating a relaxation response even during fiery effort, or tapas. Through the added gift of Purna Yoga’s light-and-love filled, active Heartfull Meditation, the mind-body-soul connection can be deepened even more. Asana is meant to be done with a beautiful feeling and respect for the body, in service of one’s dharma, not for the egoistic achievement of a particular shape.

For months before my surgery, my asana practice was very gentle and consisted mainly of basic stretches and restorative poses. Everything else hurt: weight-bearing standing poses, seated twists, sitting in any position for extended periods. Now my asana practice is physical therapy in the form of assisted range-of-motion stretches and, initially, self-directed isometrics for the gluteal muscles, quadriceps and transversus abdominis, the deepest of the four main “core” muscles. My props during what has been predicted to be 12 weeks of rehab include:

  • A brace, to prevent hip flexion beyond 90 degrees;
  • Crutches, to lighten the load on the affected leg;
  • A walker, for when crutches are awkward;
  • A stationary bike, to be ridden for twice a day for 20 minutes on no resistance, to keep the joint mobile;
  • Raised toilet seats, to prevent too much hip flexion;
  • A motorized ice water machine, to reduce post-operative swelling and pain;
  • A grabber, for picking up items not safely within reach.

The blue pads are an ice water-delivery system, underneath the hip brace. Cat provides moral support.

Rather than be bummed out about needing so much hardware and assistance, I’m trying to embrace the stability and peace that these items are bringing as I safely maneuver in and out of bed, the shower, the passenger side of my car while I’m not able to drive, and around my house. I’m setting aside any negative semantic suggestions that “crutch” equals “weakness.” A crutch is something to be leaned upon, for good reasons, but only for as long as necessary.

Two caveats of this rehab are to not push through any pain (mine has been blessedly minimal) and to not overdo any physical activity, even it feels like a good idea. I know that these tools are temporary, and that if rehab is my current dharma, they are for healing and transforming traumatized tissues and bone into smoothly functioning parts. I firmly believe that our bodies want to thrive and move as best they can. Why shun anything that could facilitate that?

My flamenco lesson: “Everyone of us hides a poet’s dream inside”

Flamenco begins in the hands. Quietly, at first. Softly.

The scene of my flamenco lesson (downstairs), and where Matthew and I watched the show afterward. (Interestingly, it is near the bullring, and a fight was going on that night.) That’s my teacher, Juan Ramirez, in the doorway at left. Bless his heart.

The scene of my flamenco lesson (downstairs), and where Matthew and I watched the show afterward. (Interestingly, it is near the bullring, and a fight was going on that night.) That’s my teacher, Juan Ramirez, in the doorway at left. Bless his heart.

My instructor, Juan Ramirez, and I stood in front of a wall of mirrors in a studio below the stage at Tablao Flamenco Cafetín La Quimera in Madrid, where he would be dancing in a little more than an hour. After he showed me a video that explained the origins and styles of flamenco and introduced the masters of the form, we entered the dance. Or at least “a” dance.

The outer expression begins in the wrists and fingers. Don’t use the whole arm, he said; it’s too tiring. Roll the wrists and fan the fingers, from the pinkies to the thumbs. Then, while expressing the hands, add the arms ~ take them out to the sides, overhead and back down; then do the same in front of the body.

The inner dance also begins in the hands, with clapping. From the performances I’ve seen, it isn’t clear who initiates the dance ~ the dancer, singer or guitarist ~ but the dancer holds the rhythm in her hands. There are two basic kinds of clapping, Juan explained. In soft clapping, the palms meet and embrace each other while leaving a little space between them, moving in a caress. As I learned a little bit later, soft clapping is matched in the feet with toe taps. Hard clapping is like a sharp applause and is matched by heel digs.

This is not me. This is Leticia Gomez, with my instructor, Juan, in the show at La Quimera, which was amazing.

This is not me. This is Leticia Gomez, with my instructor, Juan, in the show at La Quimera, which was amazing.

From there, Juan showed me basic foot positions and steps that are, I imagine, not unlike techniques in tap dancing and the clogging that I watched while growing up in the North Carolina mountains. He added music from his phone plugged in on a nearby shelf, and we started to put it all together: intention, sound, movement. Before we had started the lesson, he asked me what I knew about flamenco. Very little, I answered, apart from the fact that I love it and want to learn more about it ~ the passion, the pride in the lines of the body, the apparent spontaneity. This felt anything but spontaneous.

He led me through a basic tango rhythm, which has a four-count “accent.” Through his layered teaching, he helped me put it all together: wrists, fingers, arms; feet, legs, hips. Clap, move. Oh, if only it were that simple. He made it look so smooth and effortless.

Then we added props, oh my. First we played with shawls, which added an element of seduction and, for me, yet more awkwardness. We made vertical figure 8s and turned them sideways for an infinity sign or “fantasy,” as he called it. I’ve always thought that flamenco and bullfighting had a lot in common, and the shawls absolutely mimic matadors’ flags. (Although flamenco, I hope, typically doesn’t end in a death.) Next, Juan introduced me to the fan. He snapped his open like the pro that he is, while I struggled with mine like Julia Roberts in the opera scene from “Pretty Woman.” (For a short clip, click here.)

It really is all in the wrist.

The last prop: castanets. I remember having a pair of red ones as a little girl, along with a small flamenco doll in a purple dress. Juan helped me slip them on to each thumb and showed me where the two parts of the thick black string need to be securely in place. Playing the castanets, or attempting to, is like playing scales on a piano or stretching your fingers to find a chord on the neck of a guitar. The right hand strums the castanet one finger at a time, while the left adds bass notes. Brrrrrrrrump (right) ump-ump (left). Each hand tells its own story.

Somehow, dancing is still supposed to happen with each of these props. Thankfully we used only one at a time. As with anything, once you master the basics, you can improvise and add in aspects of your personality to make the dance your own.

(Click on the link below for a very amateur, dark and at times blurry one-minute iPhone video of Juan dancing during the show.)

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But the dance begins in the hands, the outermost feathers of the arms ~ which are the wings of the heart, as my yoga teacher Catharine Eberhart says. The parts of us that give and receive, release and hold. The parts of us that reach out and embrace others and let go when it’s time. The parts of us that seek connection, whether through physical touch or the kind of touch that can be established through the things we can create with our hands, in what we offer from our hearts.

My one-hour lesson seemed to stretch the boundaries of time. I was grateful for the private class and Juan’s patience and clear guidance, in English. I’ve wanted to take flamenco classes for ages but have not been able to find any at home. It was a miracle to be able to get such special treatment while on vacation in the home of the form.

I now have a better understanding of flamenco but still don’t know what it’s all about. I speak a tiny bit of Spanish, but I can never understand the singers. And mystery is okay. It’s essential in any art form. A natural dancer, I am not, but there is something about flamenco that stirs unnamed places in me. When an artist’s body, heart and spirit unite, it’s transcendent, and that can be conveyed only in feeling, not words. As flashy as flamenco can be, it’s not about what’s on the outside.

“This dance emerges from the soul, from the depths of the inner being, from the place where passion, emotion and creation breathe. Chakras must be opened, like budhists say. We must surrender to the force of mastery, refine our taste, sharpen our perception, awaken our curiosity. Everyone of us hides a poet’s dream inside. … We must paint canvases with castanets, fans, drum boxes, shawls, guitars and feet.” ~ Tablao Flamenco Cafetín La Quimera

Thank you, Juan, and thank you, Jennifer Yglesias of Letango Tours, for setting up the lesson.

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Adventures in Teaching: The Endless Chapter

I had two new students in my Level 1-2 class the other day, a young man and a woman who arrived together. It was their first yoga class ever. I welcomed them, got them situated and took them to the upstairs studio. I showed them the props and helped them get set up for class. “This is a little intimidating,” the woman said, as I handed her a strap. I asked her why. “Because I’m not sure what I’m doing.”

Her frank honesty reminded me of what it can be like for a total beginner to step into a yoga studio. I didn’t tell her that I often feel just as intimidated as a teacher and am often not sure what I’m doing, either. I reassured her that she would be fine and that we’d take good care of her.

Donna Farhi says that teaching yoga is like “holding a heart in our hands.” If I thought about this too long, I’d probably never teach. But students like this young woman remind me why I do. I’m grateful to receive the grace of her bravery and trust, and hope to live up to them.

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When words fail us, there’s poetry

My nine surya namaskars for Day 27 of the Kiss My Asana yogathon for Mind Body Solutions are dedicated to poetry. The fundraiser for adaptive yoga ends April 30, and although my fundraising goal of $1,000 has been exceeded, more is always welcome. Read more about why here.

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Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words. ~ Robert Frost

I knew that Purna Yoga was truly the path for me when I discovered that we study poetry. Poetry, as Robert Frost alludes to, comes from the unspeakable, as does yoga ~ from a deep inner silence that hums, from the soul’s yearning for answers and to be heard ~ a yearning that is also at home with the mystery of the unanswerable. Poetry is the art of expressing the inexpressible.

In other words, when words fail us, there’s poetry.

The Mind Body Solutions yogathon has been taking place throughout April, which also happens to be National Poetry Month, courtesy of the Academy of American Poets. How did T.S. Eliot ever think it was the “cruellest month”? (Actually, dissertations have probably been written on that, but never mind.)

It seems fitting to dedicate a day of the yogathon to poetry, especially a day near the end of it. I can look back on how the sun salutations have gotten more fluid and rhythmic with repetitions yet how they can be fresh each time, like a favorite poem, especially if I slow down. If my mind wanders and I lose track of which leg I’m on or which number I’m on, I start fresh with the next round, much as I might reread a line or a verse in a dense poem.

I’ve often turned to poetry the way an agnostic might turn to religion: In the depths of heartbreak and despair, when all hope has felt lost. Of course, there is also plenty of joy in poetry, too (see: Mary Oliver). I still feel connected to poems that I ran across in high school, some of which I copied into my journal. They clearly illustrate that, as a poetry teacher of mine would say three decades later, poetry is about two themes: Love and Death.

Exhibit A ~ the opening lines of the poem I wrote on the inside cover of my mid-1980s journal, by Ben Johnson:

Though I am young, and cannot tell
Either what Death or Love is well
Yet I have heard they both bear darts
And both do aim at human hearts.

There’s no angst like teenage angst. Except maybe middle-age angst, and all those in between, before and beyond.

Also in my woe-is-me chronicle: “Dreams” by Langston Hughes (poor bird), “Apology for Understatement” by John Wain (which ends with this killer line: (“It is not words could pay you what I owe”), “If You Should Go” by Countee Cullen, and others by Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and Juan Ramon Jimenez.

Poetry: Love and Death.

Ayurvedic practitioners and yogic sages say the universe is about Love and Math.

So what’s between Death and Math, besides “The Matrix“?

Life and all its mysteries.

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In Purna Yoga we study poetry for many reasons. Horrifyingly, during trainings we have to read poems to our fellow classmates and receive feedback on our delivery. (For the girl who used to hyperventilate while giving oral book reports in AP English, this is quite a stretch. As is teaching yoga.) We do this partly to get used to communicating out loud, to a group, in imagery and to putting emotions behind words ~ to convey the feelings behind “contract your quadriceps and lengthen your hamstrings.” We want to get to the why of what we do. (Open hamstrings help you move forward in life, for starters.) We also recite poems to practice voice modulation, metering and pacing.

Themes in poems also hold a lot of yogic lessons. In my 200-hour training last year at Purna Yoga East, we had to memorize and recite “If” by Rudyard Kipling, one of most yogic poems in the English language: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you …”  That pretty much sums up Patanjali’s definition of yoga (the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind) and one of the main messages of the Bhagavad Gita (find, accept and live your dharma, your life’s purpose, with equanimity).

Many of my yoga teachers, including Aadil Palkhivala, the founder of Purna Yoga, have recited poems or lines from poems in classes. I vividly remember the moments in a workshop about 10 years ago when he beautifully quoted from Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from recollections of Early Childhood” …

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar.

… and from another Wordsworth poem

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

I’ll also never forget when Matthew Sanford quoted this line from Galway Kinnell’s “Wait”:

Trust the hours. Haven’t they carried you everywhere, up to now?

There is as much power in poetry as in yoga. I don’t fully remember the contexts for these utterances, but I remember how I felt: Absolutely still and quiet, grounded wherever I was sitting or standing ~ but my heart and bones were vibrating. My chest hummed in the silence that fell around the words. It’s the sensation that Matthew would later describe when he said that the energy in restorative poses is the heart of yoga. It’s the energy of dawning light, of transformation and of connectivity ~ the energy that helps us feel less alone.

Matthew explains the hum behind silence, the very hum of om, in his stunning memoir, “Waking,” and in this article here.

Jane Hirshfield has a great yogic poem about dualities and what I think of as the hum, “Late Prayer”:

Tenderness does not choose its own uses.
It goes out to everything equally,
circling rabbit and hawk.
Look: in the iron bucket,
a single nail, a single ruby ~
all the heavens and hells.
They rattle in the heart and make one sound.

Poetry is yoga, yoga is poetry ~ of the heart, bones and soul. The are both embodied experiences. Both arts can last a lifetime, even help to sustain a life. They can be profoundly healing. They offer opportunities for endless explorations of what it means to be human, to try to make sense of a life that doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Both seek to unite the unseen with the seen, to make the unheard heard. They aim to unite all of our scattered parts and to lift and destroy the veil of separateness that divides our Self from ourself and from the Other.

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Now that I’ve been teaching for a few years while also dabbling in poetry (attending workshops and writing my own scribbles), I can see how much yoga and poetry have in common from a technical perspective. The effort to write a poem is a lot like planning a class. Poetry is built from a vocabulary of words; a yoga class, from a vocabulary of poses. The language of poetry gets its structure from the rules of grammar, but also from the freedom of breaking them (see: e.e. cummings); the language of yoga gets its structure from the rules within a particular form, such as Purna, and experimenting within them.

Both practices often involve brainstorming, a physical, heated purging of words and ideas onto paper, and then editing for craft and presentation. The private and public processes each have a place in the overall practices. Editing either a poem or a sequence helps to bring clarity and eliminate the fluff of unnecessary words so that the reader (or listener, since poetry is meant to be recited) and students don’t get bogged down in details, distracted or confused. (This is easier said than done.)

There are parallels for the creative process in poetry in the ashtanga or eight-fold path of yoga laid out in Patanjali’s sutras. Limbs five through seven are especially useful for figuring out how to silence the mind-chatter and go inward, toward the heart: pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (sublimation of the mind) and dhyana (sublimation of consciousness).

What holds us back from fully expressing ourselves, from achieving the eighth limb of samadhi, divine bliss? For starters …

Obstacles to mastery of the self are disease, inertia, doubt, heedlessness, laziness, indiscipline of the senses, erroneous views, lack of perseverance, and backsliding. (Sutra I:30)

What writer isn’t familiar with these? And …

Sorrow, despair, unsteadiness of the body and irregular breathing further distract the mind. (I:31)

Luckily …

Adherence to single-minded effort prevents these impediments. (I.32)

Mastery of contemplation brings the power to extend from the finest particle to the greatest. (I.40).

I love that last one. Like yoga, poetry aims to make the personal universal ~ to go inward to go outward, but with room for specificity, subjectivity and adaptability. In both, we have to get quiet within ourselves and eliminate distractions to be able to explore our depths ~ the best and the worst layers, our correct and incorrect memories. How, when and even if we bring those shadows into light is a matter of choice.

Pratyahara is withdrawing the senses, mind and consciousness from contact with external objects and then drawing them inward. (II.54)

To take that a step further, Purna Yoga encourages us to:

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

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But back to the nitty-gritty: In a sense, poetry is a type of vinyasa, the art of linking words in a meaningful way. A class might be built around a particular “peak” pose or set of poses in the way a poem is built around an image or emotion. Each word or pose is a stepping stone to the next. Each piece is discrete, but they all fit together to form a meaningful puzzle.

Memorizing “If” was helpful for craft as well. The task seemed daunting at the outset ~ it is not a short poem ~ but we did it and recited it as a group at our graduation. Learning it simply took repetition and focus, like learning how to do (never mind teach) yoga poses or any other skill. Memorizing and reciting a poem is not unlike trying to memorize a class sequence, even if the poem is not yours but the sequence is. Having a good plan for a class allows for it to flow well, ideally, but it also allows for spontaneity if the plan needs to be edited or scrapped altogether based on who shows up. As Aadil reminded us, there is a great deal of freedom within structure. And as Matthew Sanford says, boundaries create a safe container from which to expand and express ourselves. A poem in itself can help to organize a class around a theme, and I often draw on some of my favorites to illustrate a point of yogic philosophy. 

In poetry and in yoga, the discipline of the mind and body meets the ineffability of the heart. Poetry comes from the body just as much as yoga does. The body remembers everything that happens to it. The mind warps and misremembers and makes stuff up. The heart has a mind of its own, thank goodness, and that’s what we’re after ~ the real truth, the light behind the veil.

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Our lessons on poetry in Purna Yoga trainings are also lessons in listening, which is an art in itself. Without the words in front of you, can you key in to what the person is saying, to the emotion behind the words? It’s also good practice for being a yoga student, especially in a precise, alignment-based form such as Purna. Can you take in what the teacher is saying and translate the instructions for yourself, into your own body, and really experience the meaning of the pose? Off the mat, as Aadil has encouraged us, can you actively listen to another person without reloading what you want to say? And as Matthew says, can you sit with someone else’s pain and suffering and listen them into speech?

To that end, poetry and yoga are about the art of paying attention ~ of being awake, noticing, processing and trying to wring meaning out of emotions and experience. In the way that “all life is yoga,” as Sri Aurobindo says, all life is poetry. Sometimes this comes true quite literally. Public yoga isn’t about documenting yourself doing sexy pretzel poses in exotic locales (but if that’s your thing, more power to ya); it’s about how you relate to other people and show up in your life. I’m cheered to see poetry writ large in public places, however, like psychic selfies for the masses. Some cities put poems on buses, and I’ve seen poems in hospital hallways.

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The Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge in Minneapolis, April 2013. The John Ashbery poem runs along the upper beams on the left.

When I went to Minneapolis for Mind Body Solutions’ Level I training in adaptive yoga in April 2013, I took some time to wander around the downtown area by myself the day before the workshop started. It had snowed that week, so it was quite a slushy tour, but peaceful. Snow makes everything just a little quieter, even in a big city. As I left the Walker Art Center and crossed the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge over Hennepin Avenue, I noticed some writing in black block letters inside the top beams. I took some pictures and made some notes. Later, through Googling, I found out that it’s a poem by John Ashbery about motion, stillness and place ~ very yogic concepts.

And now I cannot remember how I would
have had it. It is not a conduit (confluence?) but a place.
The place, of movement and an order.
The place of old order.
But the tail end of the movement is new.
Driving us to say what we are thinking.
It is so much like a beach after all, where you stand
and think of going no further.
And it is good when you get to no further.
It is like a reason that picks you up and
places you where you always wanted to be.
This far, it is fair to be crossing, to have crossed.
Then there is no promise in the other.
Here it is. Steel and air, a mottled presence,
small panacea
and lucky for us.
And then it got very cool.

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The cobbled-from-snapshots visual of the John Ashbery poem on the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge.

Matthew talks about having the grace to land the gifts that yoga can bring, about mining your stories and clearing space within yourself from which to heal and grow and help others, about keying into the silence that can make us whole again and connect us to each other. I was grateful to have been graced with such a curious poem in such an unexpected place ahead of a weekend full of exploration in territories that were new to me ~ the terrain of a city I’d never visited and the interior landscapes and revolutionary teaching techniques that we swam through in the training. I was glad I crossed those bridges.

On the first afternoon of that training, I looked out the windows of the Mind Body Solutions studio and over a pile of dirty snow into the parking lot of the shopping center across the street. The red letters of a True Value hardware store stared back as Matthew rolled in and started to speak. “Minnesota winters are tough,” he said, “and so is this work.”

“Trust what you feel in your body. Don’t be afraid of your heart.”

The next thing I wrote:

“I already want to come back.”

I’m so glad that I returned to poetry and keep returning to yoga. They continue to shower me with gifts that I hope to share with others.

The art of adjustments

My nine surya namaskars for Day 25 of the Kiss My Asana yogathon for Mind Body Solutions are dedicated to the art of adjustments. The fundraiser ends April 30, and although my fundraising goal of $1,000 has been exceeded, more is always welcome. Read more about why here.

“You reveal the inner body, you don’t fix it.” ~ Matthew Sanford

This simple profundity is one of the keys to understanding the role of adjustments in yoga, particularly for adaptive students, those with substantial mobility impairments.

As I move this year through a 300-hour teacher training course in Purna Yoga, I’m realizing just how much I’ve learned from Matthew about the art of touching and assisting students. In the first four years of my teaching, I’ve not been hugely confident about giving strong hands-on adjustments, mostly because I don’t have much experience, and I have been taught that firm adjustments are last resorts if a student isn’t quite “getting” it. When you move in to touch someone who is trying to figure out a pose for himself, you better know what you’re doing and why. Intention is everything. But, like anything else, the practice gets better with practice.

As I start to write this while sitting at my desk, our 1-year-old kitten is clamoring for my attention, my touch. He is clawing at my leg and climbing up into my lap. I can’t type like this, however, so I have to pick him up and let him go. He pulls one of the cat beds closer to my chair, turns it over and settles himself onto it. He sleeps.

Last month, during the first of three two-week TT stints I’ll attend at the Alive and Shine Center near Seattle, we learned a five-part adjustment for shavasana, the corpse pose of final relaxation. I have been practicing it in my classes back home, with nice results. Students have told me that they really appreciate the extra sensations, which allowed them to relax even more. One student asked me after class if she was crooked and needed adjusting (certainly one reason to do the movements) ~ in other words, why did I do it? No, I said. There was nothing to fix, nothing wrong with her. I just wanted to help her get more out of shavasana, from within her own body.

Aadil said this last month during a discussion about integrity and respect for the practice and each other and our duty as teachers to cultivate a vigilant sense of awareness: Remember that “what is in front of you is a whole life, not just a body full of pain.”

Matthew’s teachings helped me greatly when I taught young people (ages 10 to early twenties) in treatment for eating disorders. Almost all of them loved receiving adjustments in shavasana (their favorite pose anyway) and frequently asked me for them. I was surprised that they wanted to be touched at all, so this was a huge lesson for me in how a fractured mind-body connection often wants to heal: by being seen, heard, acknowledged, cared for, held. They loved simple leg traction and neck massages, along with just being allowed to lie still and quiet in the dark for a while. Since this was not a typical yoga teaching situation, I would ask if anyone didn’t want to be touched. The one time ~ the one time! ~ during a class (not in shavasana) that I didn’t ask a patient before offering a light adjustment in child’s pose, she turned out to not want to be touched. She very politely told me so the next time I saw her. I have to say, I was really proud of her. Mortified for myself, but proud of her for voicing her needs and creating a boundary.

Yoga teachers don’t ~ or shouldn’t ~ give instructions or offer props and adjustments to fix anyone or force a movement or a cookie-cutter shape. In alignment-based yoga, yes: For able folks, we work to align bones and joints through the use of muscular actions. This creates vitality in the spine and, by extension (literally and figuratively), throughout the whole body. Bringing the spine into the body brings us into the present moment and more into our true ourselves. It pushes our heart forward and up and out. If we can learn how to reveal our personal Self to ourself, then we can share it with others. This is a deeply healing approach to profound trauma and, as the Buddhists call it, the trauma of everyday life.

Mind Body Solutions photo.

Mind Body Solutions photo.

Several adjustments that I’ve learned from Matthew emphasize that point. One is in tadasana, the basic standing or mountain pose: The “giver” places her right hand between the “receiver’s” shoulder blades, the back of the energetic heart center. This helps to teach awareness of the back body ~ which we can’t really see or access very well ourselves ~ with a sense of deep support. With help, we can let go. This translates into a softening of the upper shoulders (the trapezius muscles) and a lift in the front chest ~ the heart center. The release of unnecessary tension frees up energy for creative and constructive use elsewhere. At a workshop with Matthew in August 2014, he gave these instructions for tadasana:

“Balance rolling the traps back and down. Lift the chest. Lengthen the neck. Charge the legs. Reveal who you are.”

The techniques that Matthew teaches for adaptive yoga are tectonically subtle, more subtle than adjustments common in traditional classes. Sometimes a nail just needs a hammer. But for folks with disabilities, it’s crucial to “move in to move out,” he says, because that layer of subtlety is more accessible for them. I would say that is a key element of yoga, for anyone who practices, regardless of ability. Work in, not out.

Matthew talks about teaching the experience of a pose, not simply the shape. Because how would you teach triangle pose to someone who is paralyzed from the chest down? We assist people ~ and sometimes each other, student to student ~ to uncover sensations, to cultivate attention and awareness, not to fix or force. To feel and to heal. However, although adjustments from other human hands and bodies can leave marvelous imprints and uncover long-buried truths,  the real work is still personal and individual.

Matthew also talks a lot about not making an adjustment about you, the giver ~ don’t whip around and bore into the receiver’s eyes, asking, “How’d I do, huh-huh-huh?” Of course, both parties need to communicate to some degree. But adjusting is “about the universe, not ego,” Matthew says. An adjustment or an assist is an energetic exchange. There may be a doer or a giver and a somewhat passive receiver, but there’s nothing passive about the dynamic. If the student is receptive to the touch ~ which is more often than not offered without words ~ the giver receives the sensation of release as well.

One way to feel this is to sit spine to spine in sukhasana (cross-legged) or dandasana (staff pose). Work the basic actions of the poses, but feel the warmth and support coming from your partner’s back while letting the groins soften. Then move away from each other and feel the effects of gravity. Parting is such sweet sorrow! Keep doing the actions but try to re-create the sense of relief. Then try to translate this into every pose, into any challenging situation in your life in which you feel unsupported or ungrounded. A supported spine, Matthew says, helps the mind open and relax. “Support the spine, ease the mind.” With that sense of relief and focus can come even more expansion into a pose, into yourself, the space around you and your life. Safe structure creates freedom.

“The spine is more connected to the universe than your mind.” ~ MS

Whether an adjustment is energetically asymmetrical (one person’s hand to another’s back) or symmetrical (two people sit spine to spine), the main ingredient for “success” is safety. Props and assists can help create physical boundaries that help us locate ourselves in space. Boundaries create structure and add to our foundation or base in a pose, connecting us more deeply to the essential sense of grounding, to the Earth ~ to the silence that reveals the deep inner hum shared by all humanity, as Matthew describes it. From that sense of security, we can feel safe to be vulnerable.

“Our minds are afraid of how connected we are. It only sees absence.” ~ MS

At the heart of the matter, as yoga teachers it’s our job to cultivate and create conditions of safety so that students can explore themselves, not to impose a system of shapes, especially shapes that some folks will never achieve. As such, all yoga is fundamentally about adaptability, about being open to transformational, sometimes painful but liberating and hearth-opening truths.

“Yoga brings hope at an unspoken level that precedes all trauma, loss and disability. At this level, yoga is not taught, but only shared.” ~ MS

Kiss My Surya Namaskar

Today, April 1, is the first day of the Kiss My Asana yogathon to raise money for Mind Body Solutions, a nonprofit that seeks to heal trauma, loss and disability through yoga. I am participating by bumping up my yoga practice to include nine rounds of sun salutations (surya namaskar, in Sanskrit) each day.

I just did my first round, dedicated to all of my amazing donors. Here is my fundraising page: http://bit.ly/19e9cdk.

I love it when I get a clearer answer about the choices I’ve made in retrospect. I had decided when I set up my fundraising page a few weeks ago to fire up my home practice with more sun salutations, knowing that they would tie in nicely with an intense 300-hour training course in Purna Yoga with Aadil Palkhivala that I have since begun. Two bumps in one! Yesterday in class, Aadil went over surya namaskar in some detail. I am so grateful for the refinements that this course is bringing, along with tons of new information.

So here is what Aadil had to say about the classical surya namaskar that we practice in Purna Yoga (no chaturanga dandasana!):

* “It is the most important yoga sequence in the human race.”

* It is the only such series that has stood the test of time: It’s about 5,000 years old.

* Research is being done on how the brain entrains with the body during this sequence. It takes nine daily rounds, practiced consistently for quite some time, to shift into this alignment. (And nine is a cosmically magic number for reasons I can’t explain here just now.)

* With mastery of surya namaskar, the ability to move forward in life becomes easier and clearer.

* Surya namaskar helps us move from the past and the future into the present. The movement throughout ~ in the temporal plane ~ is simply up and down, backward and forward, and always back to the center. Never out to the sides. The linking element between the parts in the sequence is the breath.

Who doesn’t want more of all that?

And here is why the work that MBS founder Matthew Sanford dovetails so nicely with my plans for surya namaskar and my bumped-up training in Purna Yoga. Words from Matthew, during the All Humanity Class that he led on March 22 in Minneapolis to kick off the yogathon (thanks for the video, MBS!)

* “In life, in yoga, you are rising and falling in every moment of every day of your life. An asana is a reflection of this existential truth.”

* “Our work is humanity disguised as yoga. It’s humanity connecting.” And: “You share yoga, you don’t do yoga as much as you think.”

* Surya namaskar incorporates the four principles that Mind Body Solutions focuses on in teaching adaptive yoga: Grounding, Balance, Expansion (or Extension, in sun salutations) and Rhythm.

* In terms of our temporal and spatial relationships to ourselves and each other: “This is the fundamental insight of yoga: That you’re supposed to complicate your movement and stay connected to the greater whole.”

BUT!

* “Complexity is worthless if the simplicity that’s inside of complexity isn’t realized. That’s why more complicated yoga poses don’t mean more yoga.”

Yay, yoga. More anon.

Namaste and thank you.

The shortest distance between two people is a story

WHAT AND WHO

kissmyasana badgeFor 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.”

WHY

“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

WHEN?

NOW.