Saturday, September 15, 2012

Pure Magic

...the incredible Lauren Peterson, on her 52nd birthday...

The Yoga of Salman Rushdie

The recent piece by Salman Rushdie on his life after the fatwa (death sentence) issued against him by Khomeini moved me in many ways today. I was eleven years old when we watched the evening news in Tehran; the white bearded Ayatollah condemning the book 'The Satanic Verses' and calling for Muslims to kill the author. The war had just ended. The country needed something new to rally against, as collective samskaras of resistance and condemnation are hard to shed. I remember our teachers in schools telling us about the evils of the book. In my impressionable young mind, the very name of the book became a scary, demonic thing. Years later, when I was in America and in graduate school for writing, I was embarrassed to admit to my peers that superstition from all those years ago had kept me from reading any of Rushdie's glowing literary works. Something illogical inside me had believed the stories. I had internalized the hatred and the fear. This is how samskaras and conditioning work: seeds are planted in the most insidious ways, and soon enough, the roots are too deep and entangled with our own. Severing them takes discernment.

As a writer, Mr. Rushdie's work appeals to me greatly. He is an immigrant writer who has transcended the typical immigrant novel. The following passage speaks to me on so many levels: his process as a writer in exile, the 'yoga' of the two seemingly disparate places that he has inhabited, and how this living on the edge of two worlds gives him access to a nuanced perspective on reality, time, and space.

'There was a novel growing in him, but its exact nature eluded him. It would be a big book, he knew that, ranging widely over space and time. A book of journeys. That felt right. He had dealt, as well as he knew how, with the worlds from which he had come. Now he needed to connect those worlds to the very different world in which he had made his life. He was beginning to see that this, rather than India or Pakistan or politics or magic realism, would be his real subject, the one he would worry at for the rest of his career: the great question of how the world joins up--not only how the East flows into the West and the West into the East but how the past shapes the present even as the present changes our understanding of the past, and how the imagined world, the location of dreams, art, invention, and yes, faith, sometimes leaks across the frontier separating it from the 'real' place in which human being mistakingly believe they live.'

--from The Disappeared: How the Fatwa Changed a Writer's Life, published in the New Yorker,

Jumping Through my love for Maria Villella is no secret. I love her calm, matter of fact, no frills teaching style. Here, she makes the jump throughs look so easy, while touching on the common tendency to uproot in order to make something 'happen' (this tendency is not limited to these transitions; students will often lift their heels in standing poses, or let their feet splay in backbends, or lift the sit-bones to go deeper in forward folds, etc.)

Stay rooted above all else! I love how Richard Freeman always talks about thinking about a posture as if it were a flower we were holding: if you hold it from the top, you would kill it; if you hold it from the root, it will continue to bloom. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Faith, Fiona, and Finding Peace in the Chaos

A few nights ago, as we sat down to eat, I told W how at times, it is difficult to teach, to inspire others to practice when my own practice feels like it's in the dumps.

What does that look like, he asked, wondering if I was worried that a pose wasn't coming, or that it didn't look good, etc.

I told him that, no, it wasn't the usual trappings of the practice, the grasping tendencies that were getting me down. Instead it was that my body hurt, my postures felt painful and heavy, I felt clumsy. And worse than all of that, my mind got frustrated and wanted to quit at every breath. 

Oh, he said. 

It's been a rough couple of weeks for me and my practice. Having taken on more classes recently, my body is slowly trying to adjust to the added workload and the early hours of teaching practice. I've had an old injury that has resurfaced, and it's made my own practice excruciatingly painful at times. There is an assumption, or, impression, that our teachers are perfect practitioners who are above feeling like the practice is too hard, or frustrating, or who, on a petulant occasion want to simply quit. And take up...raquetball! jogging! heck, sitting on the couch and watching bad television! Just anything other than this meeting your limitations on the mat on a daily basis, up close and intimate, without the option of avoidance. Anything but this reality.

Yeah. It's been like that. Everyday I came to my mat, and it was hard. From start to finish, my mind wouldn't let go. I did all the things that I would suggest to my students: took a few days off, tried Primary Series, tried sticking with Intermediate, tried going to a flow class, did a totally crazy random sequence of all my favorite poses at home, moved faster, moved at a snail's pace. Nothing shifted neither the pain in the body nor the discomfort in my mind. 

Teaching when one is not drinking from the well of their own practice is a bit like feeding others when you are starving. 

And then yesterday, I showed up to practice, and I expected another miserable showdown with myself, and, it happened: my body opened, my mind released, and I felt light again. 

That feeling buoyed me through the day and to a concert that evening. The artist, Fiona Apple, is someone that I feel strongly about. Her work is deeply intense and honest. She does very little to mask her truth or to paint herself in a better light. Listening to her music is like being inside another person's brain: it's messy, chaotic, and hauntingly beautiful. On stage, she inhabits every single song fully. She is inside the experience all over again, so nothing is forced or 'performed' for the sake of performing. She is fully absorbed. 

Watching her, yoga kept coming to mind. Here's a woman who does not match our image of what a yogi looks like: she is dark, intense, and in her own words 'at fight with her brain.' Yet, watching her so absorbed in the process of self-reflection, of self-awareness, though extremely painful and uncomfortable at times, I couldn't help but believe that what she does is also a form of yoga. The honesty in her work is courageous and awe-inspiring. Can this honesty, the chaos of her process be anything but yoga?

This is what our minds do: we think 'this is what an asana looks like' and we force our bodies into the shape and ignore the direct feedback of pain and discomfort, because dammit, it's supposed to be this hard if it's going to fix me! We think 'this is what spirituality looks like' and we wear clothes that don't fit us right, change our names, join groups, pretend, pretend, and wait, but nothing comes, nothing saves us, and so we give up and think that we're not peaceful, spiritual, worthy enough. Or, that the method is faulty. We don't allow for the possibility that whatever is happening inside us is worthy. It is spiritual. It has in its core a profound peace that we may be insensitive to at the moment.

If we hear that it's not the end result but the process that is important, we assume that they don't mean us, they must be talking to someone else, over there

If we hear 'sthira sukham asanam' we secretly scoff, ignore it, and go back to wrestling with ourselves.

If we hear that 'it's ok to have thoughts during meditation; that the mind loves to wander', we assume that everybody else's thoughts are calm, peaceful, important thoughts, and what is wrong with me for thinking about french fries or how much I hate doing this right now...

We categorize. We label. We box things up. We judge and condemn ourselves and those around us. (Maybe you don't, maybe you only have noble thoughts, but I do.)

So, the practice might look like this: you get on your mat, your body aches; the first forward fold is bad enough to want to make you quit forever. You recognize the thought, yet another breath comes and you continue moving. You pay attention to how your little toes open in upward facing dog. Your brain sends another negative thought. You say hello. And another breath comes, and another, and another. 

You do this, until maybe one day, the pain is a little less loud. The thoughts a little less sticky. You do this, and maybe you even start feeling good again, before, during, after. Maybe you start craving it again instead of the aversion you had developed a few weeks back to the very word practice. Another breath comes and another and another. 

The process is messy. The unraveling by definition, hurts. It's a destruction of sorts. Unraveling old injuries, habits, heart breaks, disappointments, future ones also. It is brave work. It's work that tests our faith. 

The couch seems like a much better option at times, but that is just avoidance, and the practice, if given enough time, will teach you that what you avoid now will surely come back and bite you in the ...asana?

I told my class tonight, quite spontaneously, that I had developed a strong faith in this practice. Not a blind faith that was based on what others had told me was possible, but an earned, experienced faith that has come through injury, through difficult patches, through practice. This faith is what makes teaching possible even when my own practice is not going well. And it's a damn good thing, since I am only getting older, have a body, and will, with time, experience many such occasions to test and strengthen my faith in the process of yoga.