Thursday, September 24, 2015
We're in savasana, the first of the session. Two glorious minutes spent lying on our mats after fifty minutes of standing postures that have us all dripping and breathing hard. A respite before the floor series which will challenge in a completely different way. Each teacher approaches this time slightly differently. Some are mostly quiet, making the time meditative. Some will offer instruction on postures. Some will tell stories about people who have healed lives and bodies with yoga, my favorite.
Every teacher talks about the importance of keeping our eyes open during savasana. We've already been reminded at the beginning of the day to practice with eyes open, but the instruction while we're in this resting pose is especially clear. "Keeping your eyes open helps you stay present and gain the most benefit. This time allows your body to absorb what it's just done. If you close your eyes you'll drift away."
Eyes open during savasana is easy. There is no struggle to stay present. Nothing is expected in those moments beyond being and breathing.
The only time I'm even tempted to close my eyes during a class is when I'm pushing too hard. My mind tells me my body stretched that far last class so it should this one. My body tells me no. And even though I've sworn I will not compete this time, I will only do what I can and be grateful for that, I start to feel like a failure. I need to close my eyes and go inside where it feels safe.
But closing my eyes makes me dizzy. I lose my balance. I can't do the posture at all, let alone as deeply as I think I should. I get frustrated, and catch myself at the top of a spiral I do not want to spin down. And so I open my eyes, focus on my breathing, and stand facing myself in the mirrors until the spinning stops.
My life right now feels like one long savasana. A savasana earned after years of sweating and pushing myself to and sometimes beyond my limits. There is nothing expected of me. Nothing. So I breathe. I am. I see.
In past years I staggered through autumn, exhausted from the start of another school year, grasping for moments of stillness and beauty. I longed for a time when I could drink in all of autumn's glories through eyes not clouded with stress and fatigue. That time is here, and I'm drinking it in like a blind woman seeing for the first time.
Everyday sights take on a brighter hue and have the power to delight so much more deeply than I ever imagined. It doesn't hurt that we're having possibly the most beautiful autumn ever.
My daily walks with Toby have become sacred ritual. While they've always been important, when I worked I used that time to process the day. That often meant I saw very little around me while I wrestled inwardly with whatever monsters the day exposed. I was also walking at the end of a day, exhausted and sludgy.
It's become our habit to walk in the early afternoon. The sun has warmed the air just enough, and accompanies us like a benevolent spirit. Toby sprints after deer, or the hope of deer, and I marvel every time at how beautiful and regal he is. Graying around the muzzle now, almost 8, he is still the best companion a wanderer of the world could hope for.
Our route rarely varies, and I anticipate parts of it eagerly. On clear days, there is an open spot where the blue blue sky meets dark evergreens in a storybook scene often enhanced with sheeply clouds. At a certain bend in the river the resident pair of kingfishers begin their clattering call. It feels like they're announcing our arrival, although Toby is usually in the river before I catch the flashes of white and black and blue shooting just above the water.
The river itself is both a soothing constant and a source of daily surprises. One day it was eleven mallards resting on the opposite bank. I watched them preen and dabble and sleep through a frame of big leaf maple leaves while the river chuckled over smooth stones and Toby dived for rocks farther upstream, completely oblivious.
Often after our walk Toby and I will hang out in the back yard together. He chases bird shadows as they race across the lawn. I sit on the patio with a book, sometimes reading, sometimes just watching. Toby's red coat against the bright green of lawn, his marcelled ears on high alert, his plumed tail curled skyward. A Red-tailed Hawk wheeling overhead, or his Sharp-shinned cousin swooping through the feeders in search of a Junco or Chickadee lunch. The newly arrived Evening Grosbecks like oversized Goldfinches crowding the feeders and filling the air with their distinctive piercing chirps.
My favorite, however, is one particular hummingbird. Either a female, or more likely one of this year's fledglings, this bird has a singular buzz. More playing card on bicycle spokes than anything else. A much louder whirr-click than any of her counterparts. She is drab, with only the tiniest of hints of color at her throat. And she is fearless. She'll eat at the feeder to my left and then she'll move to the huge hanging fuchsia to my left, often stopping in the middle to study me. She hovers a few feet away and then moves closer, often getting close enough I could reach up to pet her without extending my arm. The first time she came to study me, I was nervous she'd get too close and I'd lose an eye. Over these last weeks I've relaxed. I pull my glasses down so we're looking directly at each other, eye to eye.
Even in a life that is now mostly savasana, where it's easy to be as open-eyed and open-hearted as my being is capable of, there are challenges that make me want to close my eyes. Both in denial and in an effort to cope. What's different now, just like in class, is that I am more willing to re-open my eyes and to face whatever is in front of me. I don't like being off-balance and dizzy, and I'd rather move through.
I'm in my third week back at yoga. I'm adjusting to the heat and the rigor and the routines. I'm learning to listen to my body and to push right up to the point where just right becomes too much. And perhaps unsurprisingly, I've begun to find savasana clarity in the middle of postures more and more. I stand before the mirror, body in correct form, breathing and concentrating. Eyes wide open. Heart wide open. Open to whatever comes next.
Sunday, September 13, 2015
The tiniest sliver of moon and a few scattered stars provide the only light as I step out the door into the morning. I breath in air that holds both summer's warmth and autumn's promise. It's earlier even than if I were going to work, and being out at this hour is a surprising gift.
I'm on my way to a 6:00 AM Bikram Yoga class, the first time in over four years.
On the drive in I think about all that's happened in those years: I returned to teaching after a two year leave in which I intended to get my book published and become an income-earning writing, neither of which happened. I got a new hip, the old ruined one the reason I had to leave yoga. I taught for four more years and learned a lifetime's worth of new lessons, as much as I'd learned in all the years prior. I quit writing almost completely except for a random blog post and my daily journaling. I explored Belize, rafted the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and toured Italy. I retired.
Finding the studio is easy. My beloved Pat whose buddy pass and gentle encouragement brought me here has given good directions. Plus I Google Mapped it, and read the directions on the website. I also read the entire website in the belief that the more I knew the easier the experience would be.
Few others are on the road this early and I arrive ten minutes earlier than I expect. That's on top of the ten minute cushion I gave myself - just in case. Only one other car is in the lot and I see a woman moving about the brightly lighted studio. I don't want to be the first one in, so I sit in my car and wait until more cars arrive.
I walk in behind two people who are clearly regulars, and introduce myself to Mica, the teacher and owner of the studio. She is warm, friendly, welcoming. The place has a clean and vibrant energy. Pat arrives, we visit. Kay, who was our first Bikram instructor and now attends and teaches at this studio, gives me hug and we visit. And then it's time to move into the room.
The heat is a palpable force. 105 degrees. I tell myself that we had days hotter in the canyon last summer, but some inner voice responds that there is no 50 degree river to dip into here. The room is comfortably full of a variety of people. I realize I don't stand out one way or the other, and relax just a little. Mica welcomes us, tells us to stand with our feet together and bring our hands together and up to our throats. The words are familiar, and my body responds automatically. Or at least tries to.
Over the next 90 minutes and 26 postures my mind is kept busy monitoring my body. I attempt each posture and discover that parts of me have frozen stiff in the last four years. I also discover that I feel no sense of competition with my fellow yogis - a change from my previous experience. I am here for myself. I am patient with muscles that had decided on an early retirement without telling me. I breathe gently through waves of dizziness. I sweat, at first in annoying dribbles down my forehead into my eyes, and finally in one huge body-shaped film that covers me like a living being.
The final savasana comes as such a relief and with such a sense of accomplishment that I would dance if my body weren't a jellyfish blob on my mat. Just before Mica exits the room she offers us Namaste, which we return, a word and prayer that completes the sense of homecoming that has been building over the last couple of hours.
The lively and loud world beyond the studio door startles me and brings me out of myself. I breathe in the fresh morning air, pulling it deep through freshly cleared pathways. Something not fresh follows the morning into my lungs - acrid, thick, and familiar. The unique cleansing stench of a body purging poisons. The smell stays with me, even after a long shower, hovering like a malicious spirit.
I feel slightly ill the rest of the day, while at the same time feeling deeply relaxed. By the next morning I'm sore in places I've never been sore before: front neck muscles, upper back, triceps. But I'm also feeling a relief from other pains and tightness that have dogged me since my hip surgery. I feel alive in ways I haven't since last summer in the canyon.
That first class was on a Wednesday. I went back Friday. The second day was so much easier. Not the class itself. That will never be easier because there will always be another level to aspire to, another posture to attempt more depth with. And 105 degrees requires full attention and focus every time. But I did a little more, the time went a little faster, and the potency of the smell was diminished significantly. And I felt both vibrantly alive and deeply serene for the rest of the day. A feeling that lingers still.
I'll go again on Monday. My commitment to myself is three days a week, maybe even four. My gift to myself, this time and this immersion in body, spirit and breath. In-spiration that will provide the light and energy for the inspiration I seek to live this new life to the fullest.
Monday, September 7, 2015
Pompeii was on the itinerary for our second day in Italy. In the months leading up to the April trip, that was the one thing I looked forward to the most. I first discovered Pompeii as a child in the pages of old National Geographic magazines, and so had waited a lifetime to experience the reality of the place.
I can conjure the memory: I'm 10, or 8 or 12. It's a North Idaho winter and I'm home sick with pneumonia or mumps or the flu. While snow drifts down outside, or blizzards as it so often did, and ice frames the inside of the windows, I'm tucked in on the couch in the living room surrounded by old magazines and Readers Digest Condensed Books, all donated by customers from our milk route. Mom and Dad are out working the dairy, my brothers are at school, and I'm left alone with that bounty of print, and my imagination.
I would study the detailed and lifelike illustrations of Pompeii endlessly. I read enough of the text to understand the basics of what happened to the residents on August 24, 79 AD, but it was the pictures that captured me. Vesuvius loomed large in my mind, an evil force with the power to wipe out an entire town in a day. Herculaneum was mentioned, but it was the streets of Pompeii I walked during those long winter hours.
Two years of high school Latin cemented my fascination with that ancient city. In the years that followed I read everything I found about Pompeii and was determined I would walk those streets for real one day.
The morning of our Pompeii day dawned cold and blustery with the sun and clouds wrestling for possession of the sky. Still slightly jet-lagged from our arrival in Rome and then Sorento the day before, and buzzing with the excitement of a ten year old's dream finally coming true, I saw Vesuvius for the first time from the train carrying us to meet our guide for the day.
That was the first clash of imagination and reality. Not even close to evil looking, Vesuvius sat serenely in the distance, a soft green mound, and the only landform to break the flat horizon. While it grew larger as the train approached Herculaneum, our first stop, the gentle slopes became more appealing rather than less. I found myself wishing we had another day so I could hike the mountain's trails.
I hadn't cared that we were seeing Herculaneum, but looked forward to it as a part of the whole adventure. The first view as we entered the gates and proceeded across the bridge brought tears to my eyes. The reality of the ancient ruins exposed in the center of the towering apartment buildings of an active town overwhelmed everything my imagination had created.
As Pina, our amazing guide with two PhD's in Pompeii history, led us through the streets and the homes telling stories the whole time, I struggled to absorb both the information and the sensations. I was walking the same streets, standing in the same courtyards, viewing the same mosaics and frescoes as the people who perished centuries ago. I was in Italy, in Herculaneum, with a group of incredible women, falling in love with this little town. And Pompeii was next.
Where Herculaneum was small and intimate-feeling, with only a handful of other people present, Pompeii was a production. The lines to get in were long. The city was huge, the streets crowded enough our progress in was often slowed. It was much harder to imagine life during the time of the eruption, to find the city of my childhood dreams in the crowds and endless walls and streets of stone.
And so I released the dream and fully claimed the reality. A reality that included both ruts in the stone roads left by chariot and cart traffic and a tacky modern cafeteria/bathroom built smack in the middle of town. A reality that included plaster casts of bodies and litter on the streets. A reality that included seeing the actual Cave Canem mosaic with my own eyes and souvenir stands tucked in random corners.
I discovered that day following Pina through the streets of Pompeii that I no longer needed the dreams of childhood to sustain me. They had gotten me through unbearable realities. But I was, I am, no longer that powerless child. A child who found her power in the pages of books and magazines, in a past not her own, and in her imagination.
I am now a woman of a certain age, newly retired, just days into this new adventure. I didn't actually dream of retirement as a child, or even as a young adult. It was never my intention to live a conventional life, so retirement wouldn't have been a need. In the later years of my teaching career, in the midst of much more convention than I ever expected for myself, retirement became the light at the end of a very long tunnel. The dream of unlimited choices for my days, no schedule, and travel kept me going through some challenging times.
So here I am. With unlimited choices for my days. A schedule I set, or don't. More travel possibilities than I ever imagined possible. A dream come true. Yet I know, as was the case with Pompeii, that the reality will be both a bit disappointing and a far greater adventure than I can currently grasp. As I travel these new streets of my freed days, I will remember how the disappointment of the grit and crowds of Pompeii turned so quickly into wonder at what it meant to be standing in the sunshine on stone streets in the shadow of Vesuvius.