A Sense of Place

 

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I am nothing if not sentimental. I love photographs, letters and yearbooks, old school awards and report cards, ticket stubs from national monuments and museums and programs from theater productions. A huge cardboard box of Duran Duran posters, pins, books, magazine pictures, and even stories I wrote about the members of the band (never mind) is still tucked away in the closet of my bedroom in the house where I grew up.

When it comes to my children — I still have certain tiny outfits they wore as babies that I won’t get rid of. Scraps of paper upon which they scrawled their first drawings, then letters and words. Video clips of them singing together where I hardly recognize them, they’re so little. Art projects from preschool and kindergarten.

As they move through elementary school, I keep fewer of the papers that pile up. But I still treat some of the things that pass through their hands (and backpacks) as relics. And I put my phone in their faces to snap pictures every chance I get.

It’s important to me to document life in these ways.

All that said, I can also be ruthless about getting rid of things. Clothes that no longer fit? Bye. I’d say the same about clothes I just haven’t worn in decades, but I never keep them long enough. When I finally got around to going through a cabinet of old bills and other files a few years ago, I relished the task of getting rid of all that paper. Even books, items I thoroughly love — if it’s something I didn’t like, or just thought was okay, I am happy to let it go, to make room for future tomes I might treasure and keep forever.

So. Sentimental, yes, most definitely. But a clean slate also appeals.

I am a homebody — I inhabit a space thoroughly when I’m in it. But as it turns out, I am also able to move to the next place fairly easily. Each time we’ve moved since we came to the East Coast — from our Hoboken apartment to one in Brooklyn, then to two other places in Brooklyn and finally to the little South Orange house where we’ve thus far raised our daughters — I have made a point to take one last walk through the empty space and acknowledge that I loved it there before closing the front door for the last time. It doesn’t feel painful to do that; it feels wonderful, a beautiful ritual. I actually look forward to doing it when we move from here, whenever that might be.

Somehow along the way I’ve understood that the buildings where so much of our lives happen aren’t really dependent on brick and mortar for their significance. I can truly say I’ve loved all of my homes, from the very first one on North Bernard Street in Chicago to my college dorm rooms (okay, maybe not the freshman year one so much, though I did love my roommate) and apartments, to all the places I’ve lived as an adult. But despite being someone who cherishes symbols in a lot of ways, I have been able to locate myself where I am, and not necessarily in the places I’ve been.

Yet, there is a learning curve. And I’m still very much on that curve. As much as I’m confident, even exhilarated, about moving from one physical space to another, moving away from circumstances, situations, feelings and people can be a different story.

Still, the example of moving house helps me to navigate those more complicated leavetakings.

If you imagine yourself as a tortoise, with your home on your back, it becomes a little easier — or at least less scary — to think about moving on. Everything you need, you take with you. The things you don’t — they can go.

I like to think about the neighborhoods and towns where I’ve lived the way I think of my college town — even though I’m not there anymore, it’s still there, and it’s still mine.

Everything is like that, I think. Everything you cherish, everything you find significant, the things you want to remember: You carry them with you. Whether or not you’ve got hard evidence — photographs or letters, the people who shared those things with you still in your life — it’s all there.

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Yes

10574523_10204048364742756_8190039631361338934_nDid you ever read the last chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses? It’s Molly Bloom’s chapter, and it features a generous helping of that word: Yes.

We’re often taught that we need to learn to say no. But it’s just as important to your mental health, I think, to know when to say yes.

I was in yoga this morning. My teacher Emma’s 10:45 intermediate class is really fun. It’s small, and most of the people who come are pretty experienced yogis, so she challenges us.

Today we sat down and right before we closed our eyes she said we were going to practice handstand against the wall, with a chair, and we were going to backbend so our feet touched the chair.

I fear that I gave her an incredulous look before I closed my eyes. But once I did, I thought, Okay. We’re going to do that.

Yes.

A few years ago the mere thought of having to do an inversion (the dreaded handstand, which I’ve since made friends with) or a backbend would fill me with dread. It would harden me up instantly. I’d start saying to myself, No. I can’t. I’m not strong enough. I’m scared. No.

Today, even while in the back of my mind I thought, Won’t that hurt my back? What if I fall? I also said to myself, Okay. I’ll see how it goes. I’ll do what I can do.

Yes.

While we sat there opening and softening (which is what you do at the beginning of each and every yoga class), Emma talked about how being vulnerable means taking a risk. Is it scary to think of getting into a handstand and then sending your feet down the wall toward a backbend? Hell yes. It means dipping into the unknown. The question is, do you want to? Are you willing to try? Do you feel capable of trying? Do you know how far is far enough for you, where it still feels safe, and do you know where to stop?

My answer now is: Yes.

I’ve never particularly had a problem with being vulnerable. I actually adore backbends, which scare a lot of people because the intense opening through your chest can let a lot of emotion bubble to the surface. And once I figured out that they are about bending through your upper back, not your lower, and gained strength in my upper body, I became a lot less scared of full backbends.

My issue was always with reining in that openness — with finding the boundaries, slowing down, engaging before opening. (Yes, in life, not just yoga.) I’ve since learned a lot about engaging and grounding, about opening up from a safer place. I used to throw myself into a handstand attempt and hope for the best. Now I know how to properly get there, and to ask for help when I need it, and to move slowly, step by step, and see where the opening feels good.

So we did a lot of backstand prep. We did a thigh stretch, and I felt myself deeper in it than I used to be — I’ve made progress there (yoga is the very best way I’ve ever found to see and feel your progress). We did a handstand against the wall with bent knees and open heart, which I’ve done lots of times before and feel fine about. We did ustrasana, my very favorite pose, with our pubic bones pressed against blocks at the wall. We held it a long time. It felt great.

Then it came time to try. Emma helped me up. I bent my knees and pressed my feet against the wall. My arms felt good, strong, firm — not at all like they would buckle, as I’d feared. In fact, as I started to think about my legs, about letting one move down toward the chair back, I completely forgot about my arms. They didn’t need my attention.

They were a big, strong yes.

I was afraid the pose would strain my back. But as I let the toes of one foot move down toward the chair, I realized that my back felt fine. In fact, it felt good. I touched the back of the chair with my foot and breathed. Then I moved that foot up the wall and tried with the other.

Got it. Yes.

Both feet down? Not this time. That was my boundary for today. But I felt exhilarated.

YES.


11.3

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A half marathon is 13.1 miles, and that’s how far I was supposed to run on November 4, in the Princeton Half. Hurricane Sandy cancelled it — among lots of other things, including the New York City Marathon, Halloween, and, of course, school, work, NJ Transit, and thousands of families’ power. A week and a half later, some of my friends still have cold, dark homes.

I’ve been training since August, running three times a week and going to yoga at least twice (for me, at least, there is no running without yoga). Slowly I built up distance, and I got to a little bit over 11 miles a few weeks ago, the farthest I’ve ever gone. I did it in a little over two hours, which for me is pretty respectable.

I was feeling great mentally. I could go with the ebb and flow during the run, knowing that if I started to feel tired, in another mile or two I’d get in a zone where things opened up and I felt good and strong. I got to the point where it felt better to keep going than to stop, even at 9 or 10 miles. I didn’t ever get to the point where I thought I’d ever be able to run 26.2 — that still sounds torturous. But I do know that I can run 13.1.

Enter the storm, and the cancellation. And add to that a pinched nerve in my left leg. I’d been feeling a little bit of burning and tingling in my thigh, and honestly, I was ignoring it. But this past week it’s been bothering me a little more, so I finally looked into what it might be. My left hip, though it’s been really good throughout my training, is slightly off — I had dysplasia as a baby and only through yoga have I come to realize that the head of my left thigh bone doesn’t fit exactly into the hip socket. While this is usually not a big deal — it’s just annoying during certain poses — I suspect it’s what led to the nerve thing.

So. Life is still slowly getting back to normal after Sandy (and this weird snowstorm we had yesterday). I haven’t run since it hit. I’m not sure I should — I think I need to take care of this nerve. But I don’t want to stop running — even if long distances isn’t a good idea, I want to at least go back to my 4-, 5- or 6-mile runs.

I must admit to feeling a little apprehensive. I hope that if I just rest and take care of my leg I can go back to running again. It’s funny — I was never, ever a runner until about four years ago, and now I know I’d really miss it.

Strangely, I’m not too disappointed about the actual event being cancelled, or postponed, or whatever it turns out to be. I didn’t want to actually race — I just wanted to run and finish. The training was really gratifying — I got a lot of satisfaction out of the process, out of slowly working through it, out of feeling so good while doing it. My lungs are strong and sure. My muscles and joints can carry me through. I was patient through the tough parts (uphills!) and exhilarated during the coasts (downhills). I may even have lost some weight, or at least firmed up.

So even if I don’t get to run my 13.1 anytime soon — I know that I’m able, and that I can prepare again.

Most of all, I appreciated the practice in being present. That’s always valuable.


Short But Sweet: Scrumble

My daughter Kate learned how to crochet in summer camp. She loves it. I’m impressed, because I’m fairly useless at anything involving yarn or thread.

The actual class she took was entitled “Crochet Scrumble.” She explained “scrumble” to me this way: to work on a project or craft with no clear idea of the outcome. The enjoyment and challenge are in the process, in the satisfaction and rhythm of doing the work, in looking forward to finding out what you’ll get in the end.

I looked the word up, and the “official” definition is “to scrape or scratch something out or from.” To take what you have and create something from it.

It occurred to me that “scrumbling” is an important thing to know how to do, and an important thing to enjoy doing. Because it’s really all we can do in this life — be where we are, engage with what’s in front of us, and see where it all leads.


My First Time

10155130_10202801431890214_1296151678_nTwo Sundays ago I taught my first class at the studio where I did my teacher training. We’re all taking turns teaching this free community class, now that we’re done with the training process. I was excited. I was prepared. My husband came, my yoga-teacher sister came, some of my fellow trainees were there. And friends. That room was full. And hot — it was 90 degrees outside, and the air conditioning felt like a cynical nod to coolness.

And wow, was I — overwhelmed. I felt like my energy was all over the place, bouncing off the ceilings and the walls and the students. I felt like I had so much to say and no time to say it — Surya Namaskar B and I was already a half hour into the class? I’d been concerned about going too short, and instead it became clear pretty quickly that I had far too much written into my sequence. I had to start editing on my feet.

I was so thrilled and grateful for the outpouring of support, that so many people showed up — and grateful for the six or seven friends who couldn’t make it at the last minute, too — but it meant there was no way I could focus for very long on any individual student. I felt backed up against the windows! I focused on giving good alignment instructions and hoped it would make a difference for those who might be less experienced.

Things I did right:

My theme rocked (see below). The whole engagement and expansion, boundaries and freedom, muscular and organic energy, spanda (pulsation) concept is one that really resonates with me, the thing that really made me fall in love with this yoga. And I know my strength is here, in the ideas. I think it was clear and effective.

I really thought out my sequence. It was a full-on standing poses class — I included every major standing pose. I love standing poses, and I felt like they really demonstrated my theme. I had good, resonant poses to prepare the class for the apexes — ardha chandrasana and warrior 3.

I was willing to deviate from my plan. I was able to improvise when I realized my hour-long class was going to be an hour and 15 even with some cuts. I was sort of impressed with myself.

I was funny. I didn’t feel super comfortable up there, but I still managed to say a few witty things.

What I learned:

Teach what you love. Ideas and poses. I did this, and I plan to do it next time I teach at South Mountain Yoga in October, and in the class I’m teaching at the local park district starting in September (more on that later). If I’m enthusiastic about it, the students will pick up on that. And that’s the whole reason I’m interested in teaching yoga.

Keep it simple. It’s good to be prepared, but I really ended up packing stuff into my sequence because I was afraid of having too little. Between the fact that I talk a lot (which I need to try to temper, but hey, it takes up minutes) and the fact that you need to give the students time to actually get into the poses and experience them, I’ll have plenty for the hour I’ll teach in the fall. And hey — no one ever complained about an extra-long savasana.

Keep it short. I tend to write long and speak long. I need to really refine and distill my ideas into a few sentences at the beginning and get things moving.

I can do this. Although I felt like a crazy person up there — I was literally thinking, Oh my god, did I really sign up to do this every week?? —  the feedback I got from the students was good. They thought the pace was good, the class was challenging yet accessible, and that I sounded totally on top of it. Even my sister, from whom I asked for unvarnished criticism, said it was an effective class.

In all, it was more challenging than I expected it be. But I handled it gracefully, and I didn’t leave in despair that it wasn’t perfect. I took it, and take it, for what it was — a first time, a learning experience.

My theme and sequence notes, if you’re interested:

Apex: Ardha chandrasana/Warrior 3

Virtues: Engage and Expand

Actions: ME and OE

Passage from the book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

“I think you should learn, of course, and some days you should learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them.”

Experience, allowing yourself to be moved by something, what we take in/soak up from it. More than just knowledge. Like reading about a place versus visiting it, or trying a delicious morsel of food instead of just hearing a description of what it tastes like. Really having an all-encompassing, sensory experience. Feeling it. And the idea of what is already in you – instead of accumulating more and more and more, look inside and see what’s already there, and let that fill you up.

That’s what yoga does – it allows you that access, to have a deeper experience of yourself. The physical poses are one way to do that. We don’t just check all the poses off the list – we engage in each one, we move into it in order to have a deep experience of it. The poses don’t exist except in our bodies, when we do them. So today we’re going to focus on standing poses, working on engaging our muscles in each pose and then stretching and expanding from that, filling up, so that each of you can have your deepest experience of every pose.

Close your eyes.

The first thing you need to do to experience something, whether it’s trying a new food or bungee-jumping, or deciding to have a child, is to be open to it, receptive. That’s how we begin in yoga – we sit down and open. We try on the idea of being in this moment, of being present. A great way to be in the moment? Listen to your breath.

Press your palms together in front of your heart. Doing this isn’t a gesture of prayer, but a reminder that your deepest self resides in your heart. That’s where yoga allows you to go. Even touch your sternum with your thumbs as a reminder that this is about your heart.

We’re going to open our practice by chanting three Oms. “Om” isn’t a prayer, either. It’s the sound of the universe, the hum of everything there is. We chant it to align ourselves with the energy of everything, and also to align with one another, so we can begin this important endeavor together. See if you can really feel the vibration in your chest when you chant – experience it.

TADASANA

BEND KNEES, DOWNHILL SKIIER

TOUCH GROUND, STRAIGHTEN LEGS, LIFT SPINE FORWARD, FOLD

REACH UP TO SKY, ARM STRETCHES, CRESCENTS TO SIDES

SUN BREATHS/DOWNWARD FACING DOG/UTTANASANA

SURYA NAMASKAR A (4 times, low lunge, low lunge twist, then high lunge, high lunge twist)

Feel how your body feels different, something is awakening and filling inside

SURYA NAMASKAR B (3-4 times)

Stand and breathe.

CHAIR POSE AT WALL

(stay there to feel the difference between enduring something uncomfortable and engaging with it)

PARSVAKONASANA, BOTH SIDES

WARRIOR 2, BOTH SIDES

PARSVA K INTO WARRIOR 2, BOTH SIDES (cut this out)

PRASARITA PADOTTANASANA WITH TWIST – ARM STRAIGHT UP TO SKY

PRASARITA PADOTTANASANA ON OTHER SIDE, PARSVA K LEGS AND DOWNDOG ARMS ON ANGLE

PARSVA K INTO WARRIOR II,REVERSE WARRIOR, BOTH SIDES WITH DOWN DOG IN BETWEEN

CHILD’S POSE

ANJALIASANA/THIGH STRETCH (ELBOWS DOWN ON GROUND INSIDE KNEE, BACK KNEE DOWN OR UP)

PARSVA K LEGS INTO TRIANGLE

TRIANGLE AGAIN; TAKE HAND OFF GROUND AND ENGAGE LEGS (cut this out)

ARDHA CHANDRASANA W/ASSIST (PARTNER HOLDING FOOT)

DOWN DOG INTO

PARSVOTTANASANA/STANDING SPLIT/WARRIOR III, BOTH SIDES

UTTANASANA/DD/CHILD’SPOSE

PARTNER STRETCH — DOWNDOG W/PUSH ON LOWER BACK (cut this)

CIRCLE OF VRKSASANA (engage and then expand into the support of your friends) (cut this)

DOWNWARD FACING DOG

PIGEON – ENGAGE AND THEN REST ON FOREARMS

ON BACK — SURCIRANDRASANA

SUPINE TWIST, BOTH LEGS GOING SAME WAY FOR SIDE STRETCH

HAPPY BABY (cut)

HUG KNEES TO CHEST

SAVASANA

(talk about how important this pose is b/c all the experience you’ve just had is sinking into your body, and it will be there the next time you come to the mat; “corpse” pose is not a nothing pose, there’s a lot going on; just let your bones sink into the ground and let go. All the engagement you did in class generated all this energy, or prana, that is filling you up right now. Your only job in this final pose is to let go, let your body sink down into the ground, and enjoy it.)

You should have days where you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything.


Leaning Back

278424_2171695125261_379018_oIn yoga, the front of the body is associated with the individual, and the back of the body is associated with the universal. When we curl into ourselves, we tend to hunch our shoulders forward, cross our arms and bow our head, protecting the heart. When we’re able to open up, we melt our heart forward, pull our shoulders back, and lean back, unafraid.

It’s a tall order. It can be a hugely emotional undertaking. It takes strength, courage, and trust.

And it’s a process. I’ve been practicing yoga steadily now for almost four years, and I feel like I’m just starting to really and truly be in my back body (see A Tool for the Box and A Shift).

My shoulder blades move more easily and smoothly down my back; I’m more conscious of keeping the sides of my body long. I can melt my heart down toward the floor or out toward the front of the room. I’ve never really been afraid of the leaning back part (how I adore ustrasana!), but it feels a lot better when you’ve got everything else aligned properly.

And I suspect — no, I know — that staying in my back body is the key to being able to kick up into a handstand (the Holy Grail of my practice). What happens, I’ve realized, is that when I get scared, I pull into myself, into my front body, and all the lengthening of my sides and melting of my heart and muscular energy I’ve cultivated in my arms comes with me. If I could just keep all that, I could get up. I need to trust in the fact that I can keep all that, and that it will keep me safe.

But I see now that all the back body work I’ve been doing lately — the way I’ve been feeling it differently — is work on the way to that goal. Today we did some binds and they felt better to me than ever before: so much more open, because I’m lengthening, and my shoulders and blades are in the right place. So much freer. (I love the contradictions in yoga — you get yourself into a bound pose and experience freedom. How crazy is that?)

I’m finding that I can lean back into poses more deeply now. I can keep my foundation strong, put my shoulders in the right place, and go. It’s very exciting, perhaps because the letting go part has always been difficult for me. I’m choosing to take this as a sign that I’m feeling confident enough in my center that I’m willing to trust myself and the universe more and lean into it.

I’ve got support — my family, my friends, my kula, the universe. It’s good.


Still

These past few weeks, as things have sort of exploded into chaos in the Anusara yoga world, I’ve been thinking a lot about being still.

My pattern my whole life, when things got painful or uncomfortable or crazy, was to freak out. Just fall apart. Respond immediately in a rush of whatever emotion was present. To grasp on desperately if something was ending or someone was leaving, without stopping to take a breath, to think, to get my head around what was going on.

This didn’t serve me well.

So finally, in my late 30s and early 40s, I’ve learned to take that breath. To feel my emotions without giving in to the intense need to do something about them, or about the situation — which I’ve realized really amounts to trying to avoid sitting with the feelings. Because it’s not fun to sit with icky feelings.

But what it comes down to is that if you don’t take the time to be still, to fortify, to find your bearings, you’ll just make the chaos worse. You might think an unbridled emotional outburst will make you feel better. Sometimes it does, I suppose, but my experience has largely been that in the long term, it really won’t.

Being still doesn’t mean doing nothing. It’s a conscious decision. It also doesn’t mean you’re not engaging; it is a boundary you create to protect yourself, to give yourself the space you need to think clearly, and to show other parties that there’s a line you’re not letting them cross just now. But it’s a line that protects them, too, because you’re going to be able to have an authentic response if you slow down and become still. You’re changing the quality of the energy between you and the other person, or you and the situation.

And ironically, though it might feel, look and seem like you’re building a wall (which perhaps, temporarily, you are), this is what will allow you to maintain your connection, if you choose. It will let you become more receptive. Instead of lashing out blindly or desperately, possibly with pain and anger, you’ll be able to process, sit with the emotions, and then reach out voluntarily, with clarity.

Though the organization called Anusara is in a period of intense upheaval right now, I would bet that all the yogis involved are still holding to their midline, the Universal Principles of Alignment. And there it is: First be still. Then you can be receptive to what comes next.