To Be A Student Again: Falling into the Pond, Repeatedly

Monk's Pond, Kripalu Center. Two possible paths in learning, and life: I could worry about stepping perfectly from one broken-down, submerged plank to another, or choose to play, expecting to fall in, enjoying all parts of the exploration of balance.

Monk’s Pond, Kripalu Center. Two possible paths in learning, and life: I could worry about stepping perfectly from one broken-down, submerged plank to another, or choose to play, expecting to fall in, enjoying the exploration of balance. Especially taking in the part I’m most scared of initially: getting wet.

April’s training at Kripalu once more flung me deep into non-ordinary time, like the months of grief around my friend J’s death*; with much to say afterwards, and yet so much unprocessed and unwritten-about.  I’m stymied in the richness of my adventures, and exhausted again, still.

Information, information, poured in for twelve days. From the senses: exotic dishes on the buffet, hiking to jade-green ponds and a blue mountain lake, new faces to learn, voices, expressions, chanting, body movements and stretches and muscles micro-damaged then self-repairing;  loosening of muscles and expectations.

From the emotions: old frustrations hidden in the back and neck, released!, even-older habits of perfectionism popping up and rejected repeatedly.

From the intellect: how to memorize? how to rework language? philosophy to examine and reject or accept, examples to wonder at and incorporate.

We fifty-some students were fed and watered on a regular schedule:  yoga now, eat now, learn now, more yoga now, eat now, learn more, sleep now. Sometimes I opted to sleep instead of eat, as the fifteen hour days wore on.  We studied (or not), absorbed information, wept, breathed in new ways, chattered, practiced asanas, laughed, walked the labyrinth, mused, closed our eyes a lot, danced, practiced teaching, meditated, listened to each other’s life stories.

More to come about the food--but here are the staples of broccoli and kale. I ate kale at every meal some days. Yum.

More to come about the food–but here are the staples of broccoli and kale. I ate kale at every meal some days. Including breakfast. Yum.

I’m groggy coming out of school, as evidenced by my writing:  incomplete phrases dangle, run-on sentences jackrabbit ahead.  Regular life assaults me while I self-challenge not to leap recklessly into the old hurry-hurry. Yet requirements push impatiently through the door as I bring my luggage in:  lists, schedules, topics internal and external: what for dinner? hmm, those piles of unfinished projects, cleaning; oh, and here come other people, can I handle interaction?

Another fact reverberates in this bumpy integration: I return to Kripalu in June for a second round, and preparation is required in the form of teaching practice, absorbing a three inch binder full of materials, memorizing Yamas and Niyamas (Character Building Inquiries of Restraints and Observances), becoming familiar with even more poses (seventeen asanas down, twenty-six more to cover in June).

And most important for me: the internal dialog shift.  Teaching is not giving a performance, it’s having an experience. Breathe and meditate first. Breathe and don’t take yourself so seriously. What do I experience in the moment of teaching? How can I flow with self-awareness along with students’ needs to understand? What about timing the various sections of the class, and whoops! I need to use a new kind of language–not the language of anatomical teaching from my former days in massage therapy but rather directive, guiding phrases to move the participants to internal sensations and lack-of-self-judgment–yes, language cleaner yet more poetic.

Months ago, coming back from Kripalu, I didn’t realize how painful it could be to re-enter regular life.**  So this time I moved back into the world deliberately and slowly.

I let other people take care of me a bit with:

–A zen motorcycle ride to Saratoga Spa State Park; moving meditation different from the yogic variety, world going by but not attached to it:  smells of cut grass, newly manured fields, flowering crabapples and Japanese plum, all cascading inside the helmet, forced up my nostrils; the call to give as little input as possible to the bike’s movement, merely shift with the driver’s body to stay upright or angle to make turns.  Then crunching along gravel, smelling the sulfur-y carbonic acid water when we pulled up to the springs, hearing toddlers in shorts giggle along the paths to the spouters.

Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs, NY. Mineral rich waters bubble out and down the rocks.

Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs, NY. Mineral rich waters bubble out and down the rocks.

–An hour’s amble to Jumpin Jack’s hamburger shack on the first hot day of the season,  for a cheeseburger topped by coleslaw, finding a long but quick-moving line of post-baseball league families and tattooed Harley Davidson riders, everyone patient but happy-bouncy like little kids because of the warmth.  A measured amble afterwards to settle dinner on the way to Stewart’s for dark chocolate ice cream.

–Another day: the sun was golden at John Boyd Thacher Park where a bald eagle rode troughs of air over the escarpment, along with turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, ravens circling–and then three rare Blue Karner butterflies indigo’d the path in front of my hiking companions and I.

Rare scarlet trillium, imperfectly framed AND glowing deliciously.

Rare scarlet trillium at Thacher Park, imperfectly framed and yet glowing deliciously from the sun behind.

–Talks on the phone caught me up with family and colleagues as I put in window screens  to catch the cooler night air, then re-stocked the fridge.

Finally I could bring myself to clean out the email queue, a hundred messages at a time (a task not yet complete), unpack the suitcases and put down the new green yoga mat.

And to the garden: Planting has begun in the actual garden plot, in addition to my life plan.***  An entire row of three varieties of carrots!, stringless pole beans, lacinato kale, peas, radishes, and this year sweet pansy-faces smile on the row ends, with bachelor button and cosmos seeds strewn in. The little girl and boy who live in the house next to my community garden begged for seeds when they saw the activity; we tossed a packet of zinnias over the fence.

Dug and double-dug, compost and mulch added in, planted, marked and covered with sphagnum peat, watered. Growing underground where we can't see it. growth occurring that we can't see yet.

Dug and double-dug, compost and mulch added in, planted, marked, rows covered with peat moss, thoroughly watered.  Growth, that we can’t see yet, already occurring.

These May mornings I rise at 5:30 just like at school, loop mala meditation beads around my wrist to remember my sangha (study community) and chant along with the grainy video I took of my instructors singing the Student-Teacher Mantra. I listen to my own body’s needs on the yoga mat, and study how to teach others, giving myself hours a day to learn.

Of course I overextend in studying, and other parts of my returned-to life. Then I remember the Niyama I am practicing of Ishvar-Pranidhana: softening and opening to the play of the universe. I kindly, gently and compassionately, rein myself back in.

April's full moon, called the Awakening Moon in some traditions, certainly appropriate for this period of learning for me.

April’s full moon, called The Awakening Moon in some traditions, over the lake at Kripalu. Awakening, indeed.

*See posts Sep 14 & 28, Oct 8 & 19, 2012; found in the category “Death and Grief”

**See “Confidence that I Know Nothing: The Labyrinth” posted November 2, 2012

***See “To Plant a Garden–And a Life” posted February 1, 2013

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Sighing into spring, and school

Golden now, not grainy-gray, the quality and angle of morning light has definitely shifted in the kitchen. Come 5:30 a.m., I hear returning songbirds chipping and chirping outside my urban bedroom. It is spring again–and still–despite the almost-blinding gusts of snow that assaulted my windshield after dark the other night.

Winter sunrise over the hill

Winter sunrise over the hill

I think about going back to school and sigh, just a little. This will be a challenge. Normally spring is the time students think about freedom! if not the short burst of spring break, then the long open opportunities of summer. Instead, I am picking up books, “screwing on my thinking cap,” as some obnoxious teacher once pantomimed. Ouch.

I am also intrigued, excited, curious. It’s like sleep-away camp–not that I ever attended, just read descriptions in books and heard about it from friends. Supposed to be new kids to meet, a whole lake to swim in, lanyards to twist and knit. In my case, other interesting grownups, a lake to walk around (still too cold for swimming), forest paths and a labyrinth too and a healthy cafeteria: physical and mental growth to be had everywhere.

My problem is that very persistent A+ student who hangs on the edge of my mind, like a bully taunting from the field beyond the playground, Yeah, just try stepping over here. You’ll see what happens! Loser!

She/he interjects comments as I read my Kripalu Yoga textbook. Sometimes I am pulled in by the resonating philosophy, so I forget that voice; sometimes I sigh yet again, frustrated by my more recent midlife difficulties with memorization. Perhaps because I am creating new neural pathways along with the information, undoing old patterns of self-deprecating reaction, my mind has rebelled: This is too hard! I’m not cooperating!

I go into the yoga room and look at the book, the diagrams. Deep breath. I speak the pose names as I stretch out and position myself–

–on the belly, pelvis firmly anchored into the earth, arms and legs lifting up and behind me: I whisper “Nav-asana,” and think Naval, like a boat on the water, floating with waves of breath….

Kneeling, then flowing back over knees-wide-apart, arms reaching forward on the floor, Garbh-asana, Child’s Pose–I am garbed in the freedom and openness of the child-mind and child-body, I take what rest I need, when I need it.

Bala-kik-asana, Crane: a one-legged pose of balance, arms hovering, the staccato Ks remind me of the stick-legs of a bird in water.

Like a boat--or a dock--water softly lapping, the feel of Navasana

Like a boat, or a dock:  water softly lapping, the feel of Navasana

Ah, there, that’s a reason you do yoga. Space for creativity, not pushing and grunting along, not cramming yourself into a place that doesn’t fit. By its very definition, yoga is about expansiveness, room for yourself, who you are, at that moment.

Unwinding my body in Spinal Twist (Matsyendr-asanahow to remember THAT one?) I exhale and think: Snow flies yet spring comes. I can’t remember things, I can remember things.  Just because I suffered last time I learned, doesn’t mean I have to again. In fact, the intention is to do it differently now.

Welcoming carving on the Emma Willard School  "Alumnae Chapel"

Welcoming carved face on the Emma Willard School “Alumnae Chapel”

I enjoyed a marvelous Easter/post-Spring Equinox holiday with a colleague of mine. We tromped through cemeteries overlooking the Poestenkill and around the Emma Willard School campus, deserted on a Sunday; snacked on huge pink slices of watermelon radish with cups of hot tea and maple sugar; worked on individual writing projects while the local whole chicken stuffed with crumbled sausage, butternut squash and kale baked in her oven.

We took a first-course interlude of salad: more radish, avocado, walnut, mesclun and vinaigrette.

Spring salad to tease the appetite

Spring salad to tease the appetite

I sliced sweet potatoes into fries. Her least favorite chore for the day, the knife-work was a job that didn’t feel like drudgery to me at all; I hummed as I chopped along.  That’s something I am watching for in my future earning-a-living, ways of spending my hours that I so enjoy they don’t feel like “work.”

My companion rubbed coconut oil, cinnamon and a little rosemary on the wedges before oven-roasting them. As we tapped our keyboards in the living room, the smells of dinner intermittently tickled our noses and then slammed us lusciously when we re-entered the kitchen in search of more tea.

When all was ready, we ate until satisfied and no more, heaving happy groans nonetheless, and deliberately leaving some food on the plate to wrap up for later.  Sips of tart cherry juice with seltzer served as dessert, accompanied by more writing time.

Paleo stuffing and sweet potato fries

Paleo stuffing and sweet potato fries

Ahhh, we sighed, a holiday that wasn’t (as is typical) about overstuffing our stomachs or our schedule. As the day meandered, so did we; we took seriously our choices but made them only as we went along–Want to walk more? Turn this way or that? Whoops, the chicken isn’t done; oh, I see why it needs more time, ok, we’ll write for twenty more minutes.

She’s a future yoga teacher too, and we’re both applying the lessons on the mat to daily life: sometimes grappling, sometimes serene, knowing serene-plus-grappling is actually desirable.

Yes, I told her, I joke a lot about breaking into a sweat learning to love my life.

But ease is what I aspire to:  ease within challenges, like strength and lightness in a yoga pose, grounded in the earth and yet buoyant, willing to move and respond to the wind, and not let go of connection to who I am in my core.

False starts, shifts in weather, don’t indicate that spring won’t come. How days-off were acknowledged in the past doesn’t define how I celebrate them now.   I will allow myself to be not-so-good in school and not worry.

All of it will be delicious.  Especially the more I stand in each moment, Right Now, swaying and trembling perhaps, but over and over returning to curiosity, determination tempered with compassion, and gentleness toward myself.

Warm spring sunrise

Warm spring sunrise behind budding tree

The Value of Small Things

A droplet frozen as it traveled down the branch tip, bubbles of air and all.

Melting snow refrozen to droplet as it traveled down the branch tip–bubbles of air and all.

Exhausted in my illness, I half-dreamed–swirling textures, miniature scenes:  small things.

I woke at strange hours, blinking in the semi-dark, and dragged myself into consciousness. A few times I flipped on the computer and reviewed my personal visual library of the outdoors.

Photographically, it must be admitted, I often fail to capture The Big Scene. Views to the horizon should encompass not just a grand vista but also multiple items of interest–framing trees, layers of color, initially unnoticed figures–which the eye can move between while simultaneously absorbing the grandness. I usually hazard an attempt or two at digital reproduction, while shrugging at the results.

But when it comes to the diminutive, somehow the camera’s lens recreates what I see, and then some.  These photos lull me out of what otherwise would be a fast hike through the Big Scene of tree-tree-tree, sky and green, sky and brown, up the icy path, down the slippery path, tree-tree-tree.

Lichens galore at Dyken Pond; they loved the damp and cool of December there.

Lichens galore at Dyken Pond; they loved the damp and cool of December there.

Concentrating on the little buds or branches trains me to not just look at what is on the trail ahead–the overall effect–but also the detail that goes into the effect, or surprises hidden within the effect.

More shapes reminiscent of Dr. Seuss: a vehicle, a hairstyle, something from down in Who-ville?

More shapes reminiscent of Dr. Seuss: a vehicle, a hairstyle, something from down in Who-ville?

Flashes of my hiking partner’s cadmium red coat pop up on the computer screen–she and I openly acknowledge that pulling out a camera also acts as an excuse to catch our breath. Look at the little fern! Pant, pant. Oh no, I’m fine, just taking some photos. Wink, wink.

Sometimes I don’t realize I’m tired or in need of a snack of apple-and-cheese or Carrot-Nut Bread until I am enthralled by a leaf’s angle or juxtaposition of shapes in the lichens. Visions of the teensy help me to stop and take care of myself.

No wonder while I was sick I dreamed of the small.

Hints of pussywillows to come, Landis Arboretum, Esperance NY.

Hints of pussywillows to come, in the winter sun of Landis Arboretum, Esperance NY.

like a moth emerging under crystals, velvety/downy leaves like bat ears pressing snow between them, and more leaves unfurling, uncurling, not quite identifiable. Out of a hard stem, hardly able to see that it could create a delicate quivering leaflet

Velvety beech leaves like bat ears or a moth emerge under crystalline snow, Dyken Pond.

In yoga, we do adjustments called “micro-movements”, that make a pose our own, responding to the muscles’ and joints’ needs at the very moment we are holding the body in the defined way that creates the asana. We are in the pose and we are adjusting the pose, all at once–simultaneously ancient/universal and modern/mine.

As part of the adjustments, I am learning to giggle once in a while when I become too serious–How silly to think perfection is required or desired!; to note then let go of worry about the loudness of a knee pop, to feel relief at relaxing a jaw that, unbeknownst to me, became clenched. Micro-movements are responses to the small that call from inside the body, in order to properly choreograph the Big Scene, the vista of Warrior Two or Mountain Pose.

Perhaps my larger views will improve, eventually.

Early crocuses, Landis Arboretum.

Early crocuses, Landis Arboretum.

I saw my first crocus cups of gold this week, two days before the Spring Equinox and one day before a huge snowstorm.

Two seconds after the crocuses, snowdrops. Those squiggles of green, puffs of white, baby plants so clearly claiming their place in the world, popped up out of the snow and mud.

It’s the rhythm of the natural world that’s always there–the natural world that we separate ourselves from too easily, and the rhythm of growth and seasons working like breath; we forget they all continue twenty-four hours a day: in, out, in, out, winter, spring, summer, fall.

What did I take from my middle of the night studies? Exquisite tiny worlds can be seen, if I look. Micro-movements, the small responses in my body, teach me to own my yoga.  And I would do well to practice “micro-movements” in other parts of my life.

Back in the yoga room, the intake and exhale wash away distractions. Small expands to huge. Grains of snow outside the window glisten me into the Now.

Snowdrops, Landis Arboretum.

Snowdrops, Landis Arboretum.

Open to Change: Tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes spill over the counter top.

Cherry tomatoes (and one teeny carrot) spill over the counter top into late summer sun.

As a small child, I hated tomatoes in any form. I particularly remember hating spaghetti sauce; it seemed so sour, so acidic, stinging my lips and hurting my stomach. Like many green vegetables at that time, tomatoes also made me gag.

In one of the few food compromises I recall from childhood, my mother made a separate dish for me when spaghetti was served: Buttered Noodles. Soft, squishy, chewy, buttery, salty, peppery, heaping bowls of elbows; it was delightful to surreptitiously poke my tongue into one end of a noodle, split the bent tube and then stick that noodle-covered tongue-tip out at the others around the dinner table.  When finished playing, I could then chew it, and slurp up a few more, since butter didn’t show on my face like splashed tomato sauce might have–all of this presuming no grownups were around.

Comforting and simple, I loved buttered noodles’ starchy blandness–though I didn’t consider them bland;  I considered them delicious beyond words.

**

Then one evening I bravely tested a worm of vermicelli with tomato sauce and my head jerked up, “What?! You’ve been keeping this from me? I LOVE spaghetti with sauce!” My mother, I am sure, rolled her eyes. This particular jarred sauce was savory and didn’t make me feel icky at all. So I left the buttered noodles of childhood behind as my tastes matured.

But I still didn’t like all tomatoes, just spaghetti sauce. No fresh ones, too watery, and my mother agreed–there is no tomato like a New Jersey farm tomato; having none of those available in our Midwestern kitchen, she didn’t press the issue. As a teenager, I tried small quantities of chopped tomatoes on Mexican food, to cut the heat. Then thin slivers of tomato on a burger, or in a salad.  Over time I diversified, and now even love thicker sliced tomato with fresh mozzarella and basil leaves. Every once in a while I get that childhood gag reflex, but not very often.

Tomatoes in salad with carrot, cucumber, sunflower shoots.

Tomatoes in salad with carrot, cucumber, sunflower shoots and bacon.

I changed my mind, I grew my tastes. I didn’t have to force liking tomatoes either–my desire for them came on my own terms, without someone else’s requirements.

Along with tomatoes, I now eat all kinds of green vegetables–they are some of my favorite foods! and in another area, I have expanded past my color palette of jewel-like purple and blue to appreciate earth tones, browns and even oranges. (My kitchen is painted a dull historical green and accented with red, of all colors, with mud- and rust-colored rugs.)

Preferences shift, and I want to be open to that–not too rigid, in food and color choices, or relationships, or beliefs about the world. “Curious” is the word they use in Kripalu yoga.

As I increase my practice in preparation for Yoga School, I learn to be curious as I study the edge of my likes and limits. Ready to laugh at myself and my foibles.  Maybe I will grow to love huge dripping slices of tomato raw in my mouth–maybe I will grow to love the burning ache in my hip during Pigeon Pose or every damned time I lose my balance in Tree Pose.  Who knows?

Frozen tomatoes from the garden--part of the clearing out cooking!

Frozen tomatoes from the garden–part of the clearing out cooking!

….So all that serves as an introduction:  I used up some tomatoes the past couple weeks.

I’m pretty exhausted from weight lifting, walking in the snowstorm that arrived yesterday, and Yoga Flow sessions, so I will share the photos and leave references if you Gentle Readers desire the recipes. Every one of them used tomatoes.

Piles of vegetables, including frozen tomatoes, crowd the counter.

Piles of vegetables, including frozen tomatoes, crowd the butcher block table.

Cabbage and sweet potatoes formed the basis of Cape Verde Vegetable Soup.

Cape Verde Vegetable Soup, from Sundays at the Moosewood, published by The Moosewood Collective.

Cape Verde Vegetable Soup, from Sundays at the Moosewood, published by The Moosewood Collective.

The carrots and peppers filled out vegetarian chili.

Vegetarian chili, from The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen.

Vegetarian chili, from The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen.

My favorite adapted recipe, Green Chili and Corn soup, used tough late summer Community Garden corn softened by the freezing process, and more black beans.

Highly adapted version of Crema de Elote Soup (no cheese, no milk, waaay more green chilies) from Sundays at the Moosewood.

Highly adapted version of Crema de Elote Soup (no cheese, no milk, no potatoes, plus black beans and waaay more green chilies than originally called for) from Sundays at the Moosewood.

Plenty of tomato based soups and chilies to go around this frozen month of February–though I think I’ll make some buttered noodles, very soon.

I hated tomatoes and then I loved them, but only in some forms. What does that say about changing your mind? Being open? What happens when you don’t force things?

To Plan a Garden, And a Life

Finger Lakes vineyard, with Seneca Lake steaming on a 5 degree below zero morning.

Finger Lakes vineyard, with Seneca Lake steaming on a 5 degree below zero morning.

It flew in through my postal slot this week, a stiff green mailer I’ve received twice before: Continuing Gardener Sign-ups. It means that in February, I’ll toddle down to the public library, pay my small fee, re-read the rules, and confirm my plot.  Ok, so I knew the mailer was coming since I am a Garden Coordinator, but it’s satisfying to jot the date on the calendar anyway, marking the beginning of my fourth growing season with the Capital District Community Gardens.

We are in the midst of deep winter here in upstate New York; when it is absolutely necessary to wear gloves the minute you step out of doors or else risk wind-burned and skin-split fingers; when billowing road salt coats our cars and our street and our pants when we lean over those cars, even flies into our mouths if we are thoughtless enough to open them before tossing ourselves shivering back into our homes.

The standard picture of Gardener Dreaming About Spring is someone escaping that salty, snowy weather, cardigan-wrapped and hugged by an overstuffed recliner. The silhouetted figure, plush-slippered, pores over seed catalogs by a roaring fire, sipping hot chocolate or spiked cider as the wind screams outdoors.

I’m not exactly like that. Don’t own a recliner, fireplace, or seed catalogs, and slippers make my feet sweat. I clomp around the apartment in old socks and clogs and mostly I’ve used the seeds that are donated to the Community Gardens office or buy plants when the mood strikes me or they are on sale during the growing season.

However, this year I’ve been thinking hard about my planting choices. For example,  cherry tomatoes dominated my rows in the past–round red, little snips of yellow, some shaped like mini-butternut squash. I kept them because they volunteered from the first summer my garden was planted for me while I was recovering from surgery.

Now I think I want plum tomatoes instead.

The carrots were such a roaring success last summer, those tasty sweet morsels; if started early enough, multiple harvests would be possible.

I desire green beans, but don’t want to mess with the strings. Maybe I’ll grow lacinato kale along with my rainbow chard. And broccoli-one of my fellow gardeners shared broccoli with me, I could do that! I love broccoli. Perhaps I’ll plant the whole damn plot in flowers to cut for my dining table–then again, zucchini are not only traditional but useful.

I am practicing making choices, not just doing what I did before, not doing what is merely expected.

Last summer's zucchini shredded...

Last summer’s zucchini shredded…

...to make chocolate zucchini cake!

…to make chocolate zucchini cake!

Another envelope arrived this week, not through the mail slot but in my email queue (the way of so much these days), announcing my acceptance to a yoga teacher training program. Another spring planting to look forward to, drowse with by the metaphorical fire–though a more active drowsing, as my challenge now is not only to plan but to become physically stronger and more disciplined in my yoga, before I arrive mid-April. I also must battle my demons of self-doubt, in order for the A+ student to go back to school in a new and different way.

Like the garden, what do I plant?  What do I discard because it doesn’t work for me? How can I be publicly not-perfect, in a setting (learning) where I was so driven before? The plan: to be relaxed like I am about my garden plot: not the best and not neglectful, something in-between.

I’m going in as probably the worst student in Sanskrit names for poses, as well as a mediocre memorizer of everything else, with a life-battered body that hasn’t been doing yoga for very long. But my true subject matter will be one of the themes of Kripalu yoga: compassion. I will learn compassion toward myself.

When I am “not successful” at a particular physical or mental task, I will attempt to be successful at compassion for myself, and gentle even in discovering my lack of compassion. This I can do, and it is all I need to bring.

I vow to break out of my old gardener habits and make new ones, different ones, not sure what the harvest will be, but trusting it will be–something–something wonderful. Storms will come, and drought, and interruptions by the personal and political and societal–and the skills I’ve acquired in the garden will get me through what I’m calling “sleep-away camp” at Kripalu.

Here at the end of January I open the seed catalog of my life, once again dreaming the future into being.

Seneca Lake warmed by the sun, readying for the end of winter, and then spring!

Seneca Lake warmed by the sun, readying for the rest of winter, and then spring! Who knows what transformed things will come out of this ground?

Confidence That I Know Nothing–The Labyrinth

One of several trees that greet you at the entrance to the labyrinth.

A meditation labyrinth is a winding path, but unlike a maze, the traveler knows she will follow the course to the center and traverse the same path out with no fear of becoming lost. People have walked labyrinths of various forms for millennia; as they amble, they seek answers to particular questions, or to touch their G/god or Spirit or inner being.

When I began my weekend retreat at Kripalu Yoga Center last Friday with a walk in the outdoor labyrinth, I thought about self-definition, and work.

Winding the curves, tears dripped down my cheeks: I don’t want to get to the center— because then I will have to come back out, and I’m not sure what I will discover about myself in the process, specifically, my options for future paid work. Recently, before I even claim any idea as a “possible next career,” I’ve gotten scared, run away from thinking, watched too much TV, over-filled the schedule or just done nothing.

Achy and stiff, I haven’t participated in my usual yoga classes at home and have avoided extended concentration on breath and difficult positions. Yoga has merely served as a stretching regimen a couple times a week. Last year in the autumn my body was so much more mobile, technically and muscularly strong in the postures, and confident. Lighter, too.

Old habits of anxiety haunt me, a drive to squeeze everything I can out of this time away, to find answers to my questions. But at what expense? I ask as I wander. To feel the drivenness more than the experience?

I notice that there are more reds in the trees here than in New York; the weeping trees quiver with neon orange, yellow and green in their seasonal change; shadowy evergreens cover the Berkshire mountains behind the labyrinth. Exiting, the view stretches wide, with a broad grassy hill up to buildings where the first session, and then dinner, then more yoga, await me.

A community of grasses accompanies you.

I wish I’d been conveniently struck by some slam-bang inspiration about work while in the labyrinth, but then in yoga class the falsehood is revealed that when you discover something, you are then finished or complete–an impossibility, because we are constantly changing, and the world is constantly changing. The instructor reminded: take your time, make your own choices, move how you want to, experiment!

The intense physical activity scrubs me clean and pares me down, open to see daily life as simultaneously not that important and amazingly huge, miraculous, splendid. The sixth sense, we are told, is Awareness. Yoga calls me to the corporeal plane, and the spiritual plane, and beyond that, even–but by 10 pm I am so tired and roiling in self-judgment, it hurts.

Washing up before bed, I remember: when my best friend visited a few weeks ago, she commented, You believe you are not moving fast enough with this puzzle. But for the first time in your life you are looking at each piece and not trying to press it in the form right away, instead asking does it fit? does it even belong in this puzzle?

I want to trust that the picture will emerge. Mostly I believe it will, but I’ve been sidelined and undermining myself, avoiding “the work thing” because I have been afraid–of failing, or finding a big nothingness at the center of myself and my search.

The next day, during the Kundalini yoga, in the repeating pose of punches-through-an obstacle, I strike through the negative messages, through self-doubt into compassion for myself, thus revealing a glorious version of Me. It is repeated: Revelation will come and there will always be more to understand and grow into.

As we tell our life stories during lunch, my roommate remarks on my tenacity, and offers unexpected observations about my skills.

In a Kripalu Yoga session, frank acknowledgment that everyone suffers heart break leads to a vision of the body as energetic river, where damage from that pain has an impact, but can be repaired.

Words from the Prana Flow teacher: Move with courage into whatever life brings. Practicing yoga can give you confidence that we know nothing. Spending time with yoga itself will give us “nothing”–but through breathing, doing asanas (poses), and other practices, we can tap into the teacher we have within us. A bit theoretical, hopeful, maybe even too far-out. But I like it.

After fourteen hours of yoga in two-and-a-half-days, hours of breathing and meditation and strengthening of the body and compassion toward myself, listening to the body and listening to the body some more, having my value reflected back to me by others and myself–I approach the labyrinth once again, to close the weekend.

I stop at each planting on the way in: sets of willows, vanilla-cupcake-colored, Seuss-ian tufts of grasses flopping in the wind, and some unidentified saplings; I reach out to touch each one in turn, and step to the next pair, like a slow procession up a church aisle, until I come to the labyrinth entrance, stroke the wood of the arch and walk through.

Seuss-ian soft grass-tops.

I deliberately slow my gait, returning to the meditative walking that I’ve read about: sense the heel touch the ground, roll through the middle, and let the toes make contact. Then don’t do the expected forward movement, just rest there; then, pick up the other foot, shift weight and move. One step. Pause. One step. Pause. One step.

I brush against a bushy bottomed evergreen, and it felt like I was joshing a friend, approaching a teenage boy uncomfortable with hugs, him pushing his shoulder against mine, Hey, dude, whuzzup?, a camaraderie with the trees, like we were buddies, old pals, kidding around with each other, glad to see each other, relieved actually. So I stop to give each head-high evergreen a gentle shoulder bump and a half-smile of recognition.

Following that, I tromp, wide-hipped, swinging my legs with energy. Clomp-clomp-clomp. Then stand, smelling the musty grasses dry in their rustling, slipping their feathery lengths through my fingers. Next, glide forward slowly again, with few tears, in fact triumphant, bubbling over some with alternative ideas and ways of looking at Work. Think to myself with a sigh: god knows I will run into obstacles and I may be completely wrong about the possibilities, but I’ll use the yoga practice–no, I’ll just DO it, and through that, trust I will get to know how I feel about things; motivate myself by being in touch with my body–no, I’ll NOTICE motivation and excitement from within, seeing and leaving behind the berating messages, the patterns of avoidance–cleansing with breath, clearing, opening; like the trees are changing and opening to the heavy gray fall sky over lake and mountain here in the Berkshires.

I resolve to create a new Practice in my life, instead of the old Routine: new ways of walking through my days and taking care of myself. Cup of hot tea with honey in hand, I drive back home.

Of course next day I am exhausted by the weekend, and then overstimulated by classes at the computer store: required to be intellectual before I am ready, blasted by the fluorescent lights, too-loud Muzak, and super-saturated color. The coming rainstorm from Sandy pushes me to watch old episodes of Glee “while I can” and then the darned electricity never goes out! and I worry I have fallen right back into all my old habits.

But–every day I’ve eaten well, gone into my yoga room and felt the muscles loosen along with my busy mind, remembered what my community of yoga teachers taught me, heard their laughing voices, and breathed compassion toward myself. Started again with the next moment.

Yes, life is a series of beginnings, to be taken puzzle piece by puzzle piece, step by step, breath by breath. Perhaps life is also a series of puzzles, where the fun, the point, is putting it together, not the final image.

I am confident I know nothing. I have entered the labyrinth, journeyed to the center, and come back out. I’m holding the puzzle pieces, thinking.

A far-away view of the labyrinth, after you re-enter the world.