World History According to a First-Grader

Lots of heavy yoga posts lately, so I thought I'd lighten the mood. 

Desmond and Josephine celebrate their 100th day of first grade on Friday and part of the celebration involves completing a project that plays off the theme of 100. Think 100 Legos, 100 Hershey's kisses. When Esme did this project, she grouped 10 flower stickers on 10 separate flower petals. 

Desmond and Josephine chose much more complicated and time-consuming ideas. Josephine set out to hand draw and color 100 horses, then write a poem about them. Desmond decided to write 10 facts about 10 famous people. He completed most of the project by himself, scribbling the facts in a journal. I laughed out loud when I read them this morning. 

From "Nutty Napolean:"

"His first wife Josephine had a bunch of boyfriends behind his dumb back."


"After he died, some guys took a look at him and was surprised. Apparently, he had some wacko disease."

Christopher Columbus:

"If he had landed a few islands away, he would have been eaten."

Albert Einstein: 

"Had really crazy hair."

William Shakespeare: 

"In one of his plays a guys pants caught fire and it had to be put out by beer." 


Thoughts on Mysore

I was wrong about Mysore. I thought before starting the practice a few weeks ago it fueled competitiveness and fed the ego. Maybe it does at other studios. Maybe it does among other practitioners. But what I've found has been startlingly different and maybe even a little unnerving. 

For me, it's very quiet, deeply personal and contemplative. 

I feel the heavy and vast presence of my unknown when I step on my mat. It feels solitary, for sure, but also lonely compared to the typical yoga class. 

There is no music. No cues from the teacher (unless they come to assist you). Students drop in and out over the course of several hours. There is the meditative, relaxing sound of deep ujjayi breathing, whispered assists, sometimes laughter. But really, what there is, is you and your mat and the silent speech of your body as it tells you what feels tight, fluid, glorious, blocked. 

I thought yesterday of the notion of "silence is deafening." That's kind of what I've found when I work through the series. My body remembers the poses and knows, sort of, what goes where and how to engage this or that, so what's left is the breath and everything, EVERYTHING, there is to learn. 

Because of the kids and volunteer commitments and surprise sicknesses, I can't go as often as I'd like. So far, the most I've been is three times in one week. Dedicated Mysore students practice six days a week. But already I've found such a different experience that I spend long hours puzzling over what it all means. No answers, just wondering.


Listening to Pain

It wasn't until I fell into the trash can that I gave myself a talking to. The tumble into the bin came just moments after I crashed into the wall. Twice. I'd been upside down on my head, one arm out in front of me for support, the other in the air reaching for my foot behind me when I fell. I was trying to recreate a pose I'd seen a remarkable yogini do on Instagram. In her photo, she seemed a delicate sprite, effortlessly balanced on her head and suspended in time. In my kitchen, I breathed heavily with effort then toppled in a crash, bang, boom kind of way. 

"This is ridiculous," I may have said to myself. 

For the past two days, I've had to suspend my typical vigorous yoga practice because of an injury completely unrelated to the headstand fiasco. I developed pain in my back lower rib over the weekend after a restorative yoga practice, of all things. It started off as a bit of a nagging strain but quickly turned to full on evil by Monday morning. 

When I realized how severe the pain was, I spiraled quickly into an ugly pity party. I wrote and deleted no fewer than half a dozen Facebook status updates because they were dark and full of negative energy I didn't want to spread. Wallowing in self-pity is how I described myself to one friend. 

I immediately jumped to the worst case scenario and imagined the pain would be as bad as when I herniated my disc and linger as long. I despaired that I'd no longer be able to practice as hard as I do now, that I couldn't take the classes I've grown to love and look forward to. 

I actually cried when Kent came home and said something that showed he completely understood my anguish - and I'm not exaggerating, it was anguish.

The intensity of my reaction got me thinking about the headstand incident and just what I'm playing at here. What compelled me to do the headstand? It certainly looked beautiful. And challenging. And fun. But is it yoga? Is it serving some benefit or simply stroking my ego? 

Someone in my teacher training program once asked why we were required to meditate daily. Because yoga without breath is just gymnastics, the teacher said. 

Maybe the headstand was just gymnastics. Maybe it's something more. But when I read an old post today by Kino MacGregor on the presence and power of pain I realized it's time for me to examine my own practice. 

"If you find yourself faced with a debilitating injury one of the hardest things to face is your own ego," she wrote. "The egoic mind hates to feel like it is slipping from the front of the pack and will cringe and twist when you lighten your load to go easy on your body."

I've never felt competitive about yoga. My first studio was tiny and our mats nearly on top of one another, so, by necessity, I learned to look inward rather than at others. I close my eyes often in practice even now.

That said, I've certainly looked admiringly - longingly, even - at photos of yoginis in spectacularly beautiful positions, especially the back bending poses I'll never come close to finding. 

While I'm not competing with others, it's certainly true that I'm competing with myself. Pushing myself to conquer, to achieve. Why was it so hard yesterday for me to accept my yoga could be different than what it was last week? What am I attached to? The high of a strenuous class? The accomplishment of holding challenging poses? 

"Injury demands that you ask what your every-moment priority really is and requires you to be totally present," MacGregor wrote in the post. "The question you must ask is at the core of your dedication to yoga. When you can no longer do the “cool” moves you must determine whether your motivation is truly finding inner peace or just the advanced postures. The honesty that yoga demands forces you into an honest relationship with yourself. Only in the clear light of pure consciousness can you make peace with who you really are underneath your need for achievement and perfection. Only when you release the egoic mind can you actually practice yoga as a healing modality. For when you have passed ambition, goal-orientation, attachment to outcome and the need to achieve you can just be in a state of acceptance and listen to your body. Then you can make whatever modifications are needed and experience the free space of acceptance and non-attachment where all healing happens."

By luck, I had a previously scheduled Rolfing appointment today. Cosper took a brief look and suggested there was something amiss in my tenth thoracic vertebra near my rib. It could have happened while I was sleeping, he said. He gave more refined details, but the details always escape me. He worked on my back, shoulders and neck for 90 minutes and I left feeling much relieved. 

I came home and resisted the urge to turn upside down or play with any back bending postures. I got out my block, sat in virasana and meditated for 25 minutes. I listened to my body, Kino. Thanks for reminding me.


Now, the discipline of yoga.

People often ask me how long I've practiced yoga. It's a simple enough question, but one I can't answer easily because while I went to my first class more than a decade ago, I've spent more time off the mat than on it. Serious injuries, tight finances, pregnancies and childbirth all prevented me from going as much as I would have liked. 

I practiced once or twice a week for a few years, then not at all for a few, then once a week for a spell, then not at all again. And so on and so forth until a year ago today when I made my way, slowly, to the third floor of Mind the Mat and my first hot yoga class.

The first time I sought out yoga I went to heal a herniated disc in my lower back. A second herniated disc in the same area brought me back to the studio again. Both times I found healing, but this last time, I discovered worlds more. 

Atha yoga nushasanam. 

I started yoga in a tiny Ashtanga studio in the attic of a neighbor's house in Raleigh. At the time, I worked long, unpredictable hours as a political reporter, and I was trying - but failing - to start a family. I despised my job and suffered miserably from multiple miscarriages, not to mention the back pain. Yoga was a bright light in a gloomy time. I look back now and wonder why it didn't consume me then, like it has now. 

Perhaps I wasn't ready. 

My first teacher did a great job of conveying the world of yoga beyond the asana practice and her early introduction to the yamas and niyamas stuck with me. I integrated many of them - or tried to anyway - into my outlook immediately. Ahimsa (non-harming), aparigraha (self-restraint, non-greed) and tapas (self-discipline) were particular favorites, so while I spent long stretches off the mat, I suppose I continued with my yoga in some form. 

Maybe I was ready?

So much about yoga is different these days than 12 years ago. The Internet, for one, and social media. Together, they make yoga more accessible. Aspiring yogis don't have to look far for inspiration and free instruction, from how-to videos on YouTube to daily challenges on Instagram. 

But I was different too when I walked into the heated studio last year. I was ready to reclaim my body after spending the better part of a decade growing babies in my belly, nursing them, holding them at my side and waking at night to tend to their cries. They had all grown mostly self-sufficient and no longer clung to me for sustenance or safety. It was time to feed myself.

Atha yoga nushasanam. 

I bought a 10-class package and within the first week went more times than I used to in a month. I fell hard for the new practice and yearned for the heat, the movement and the stillness. 

The first few months, I practiced ever so gently, keenly aware of my limitations and anxious not to exacerbate the pain in my low back. The intentions I set at the start of class focused on healing or humbleness. As my pain eased, though, I started to discover the fun of floating. I grew stronger and more stable and started to practice with more abandon. 

My life is filled with repetitive, sometimes mind-numbing responsibilities. I found a freedom on the mat I either lacked in my normal day to day or hadn't yet found a way to tap into. I found teachers who challenged me with new poses and I found focus and muscles and a sense of HOT DAMN, I LOVE LIFE that I'm not sure I ever had. I've reclaimed my body in a way I hadn't fully occupied it since my early teens before I got lost under the weight of infrequent activity and excess.

One of the required reading texts for our teacher training was the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It begins: Atha yoga nushasanam. Now, the discipline of yoga. 

It's become my favorite mantra and one I repeat often throughout practice when I need to reign in my wandering thoughts, to return to the breath, find presence in the moment. I chant it silently on long walks or sing it at the dinner table. 

It's what I think of when people ask me how long I've practiced because ultimately, it doesn't matter if I've practiced forever or never once set foot on a mat. I practice now. 


Yoga 2014

As last year started winding down, I started to think of yoga poses I'd like to find in 2014. My list grew so long, though, it began to feel a bit ridiculous. I decided instead to divide the poses into three themes because I found there were ideas that unified them. 

My hips are tight, for instance, and so far have restricted the full expression of poses like tittibasana or bird of paradise. I'd love to straighten my legs in the poses, to find their gracefulness. My first yoga teacher once said we hold grief, anger, and big, unresolved emotions in our hips. I think there's something to the idea. For years, I coped with great sadness by ignoring or numbing it. I started down a different path several years ago when I realized I needed to feel in order to live, even if it meant feeling like shit. 

So, this year, I intend to focus great energy on hip openers and especially on shedding old grievances that have done nothing but poison my outlook and ability to trust. At a New Year's Day yoga class, we spent what felt like 10 minutes in resting half pigeon and the entire time, I imagined waves rolling over my hips, washing away the accumulated bitterness and grief, the long years of despair.

This past year, I've found great joy in my yoga practice as I met adventurous, athletic teachers whose practices lean heavily on arm balances and inversions. Until now, I trained with teachers who stuck to the basic poses and while those poses are beautiful and take lifetimes to master, there's freedom and fun going upside down. I think I crave that playfulness because so much of my life as a mother of four can be monotonous, even rigid. "Do your homework now. Please put your plates in the dishwasher. Clean your room. Did you brush your teeth?" 

I get so tired of hearing myself talk sometimes, so bored, that I live for the moments in class when we fly. I find transcendence in floating. More floating and flying in 2014. Think the Ashtanga lift up, jump back to chaturanga, tittibasana press to handstand, handstand to koundinyasana, wild poses like that.

Finally, I don't want to be stymied by fear any longer, particularly the fear of public speaking or even just speaking my mind. A lot changed for me when I turned 40 a couple years ago. For whatever reason, I felt a switch flip to "I don't give a shit what anyone thinks of me." It was invigorating and liberating all at once. I just realized we're all doing our best to get along and more power to your efforts, more power to mine. Let's rock it together. 

But I still felt bound by some fears, enough that it seemed absurd to even consider yoga teacher training. For one, I couldn't imagine standing in front of people and finding words once my mouth opened. For two, who the hell was I to think I knew enough to teach?

I overcame those doubts, though, and now it's time to overcome the remaining ones. I want to open my heart in 2014 and act bravely, boldly. With big love. So, all those back bending poses that I've been so afraid of, it's time to finally take them on. That's what I told myself at the start of the year, not realizing that our first weekend back to teacher training in 2014 involved a five-hour backbend clinic. 

I felt excited, but anxious the night before, full of fears and not at all brave. But I went to class resolved to be open to the experience. We spent the morning and afternoon doing sphinx, cobra, locust, bow, camel and dancer. I felt strong and, after, so energized that I came home and practiced more. 

The next morning, though, I woke up with an entirely different attitude. I drove home from the grocery store, stopped at a light and thought, "Whoa, this is some crazy intense sadness." I've basically been walking around like I'm high the past few months, so to have dropped to such a depth was a total surprise. The weather was cold and rainy, and the kids and Kent had just gone back to school and work after the holiday break. I thought I was just lonely, but it seemed like more, so I Googled backbends and emotions, and turned up a 2012 post by Kino MacGregor called the "The Emotional Journey of Backbending."

Of particular note: 

"One of the deepest lessons in the yoga practice is about bringing the energy up the spine and cleansing the nervous system," she wrote. "Backbends thrust your full life force up through this central channel and burn through blockages along the way. When one of these blockages gets triggered it really does not matter whether you are doing a deep backbend or a beginner backbend because the emotional state that gets triggered is really of paramount importance."

I emailed Kent to tell him about the crushing sadness and the fascinating - potential - link to the backbends the day before. He asked me to focus on happy memories. But no, I said. I want to dredge up this crap. I want to sit with it instead of stuffing it down. "I want to be free of all the past shit," I wrote. 

And so, welcome 2014.