In a few weeks, I start a six-month yoga teacher training course that, strangely, falls firmly in my comfort zone and yet also wildly outside it.
I feel at home on a yoga mat and in yoga studios. I go to a place in my head during practice where most everything and everyone fades and only the sound of my breathing and the teacher's prompts remain. It's not uncommon for me to finish a class and be surprised to see the person next to me for the last hour or 90 minutes was a friend. I typically don't see past my own mat unless I seek out the teacher for help with alignment.
In other words, I'm in my element as a student. The thought of standing in front of the room, however, terrifies me. I can't help but think about the time I stood in front of a large crowd of friendly faces - neighbors, all - opened my mouth to speak and froze. Another friend stepped in to address whatever it was I was supposed to address.
Yoga teacher friends tell me this is exactly how they felt before they started, but I don't believe them. They seem like naturals, so smooth and at ease. They insist, though. One told me she was so nervous leading her first class she was drenched in sweat before she even started. Another told me she farted in one of the first postures she demonstrated, then fell to the floor in a fit of unstoppable laughter.
I keep telling people that I might not teach once I've completed the course, but I'll definitely enjoy the months of intense study and the opportunity to take my practice deeper. Regardless of whether it's true, it seems like a cop out, doesn't it? I should stop saying it.
How do you thank someone for an extraordinary gift gifted anonymously?
The owner of my local yoga studio wrote to tell me the other day that my "yoga fairy" struck again. It's the second time in several months the person left a gift for me. A very large, very humbling gift.
"You are loved," she told me.
And so I am, I tell myself.
It's hard for me to accept love. I've built so many walls, you know. So many stupid walls. It used to be nearly impossible for me to accept help too. But then Esme freaked us all out at birth and we were overwhelmed with help - fresh food baskets, phone calls, dog walks. It was the first time I fully saw help and love as two sides of the same coin. I've tried hard ever since to never rebuff gestures of help. It's akin to throwing aside love and I'm not so reckless to realize how lucky I am to have it.
It strikes me that there's a yoga lesson here to be learned, something along the lines of opening my heart to this surprise gift, accepting it for what it is -- generous, kind, loving. Then paying it forward by throwing as much kindness and love out there as I can. Or something. I'll get this right.
The day after I thought I might drown, I got back in the lake and swam the 1.2-mile course. I feared that if I left it, if I left Lake Placid without doing the famed loop, I'd have created a hang up. One that would loom like a giant stop sign in front of the rest of my life, forcing me to avoid doing the activities I love.
Mirror Lake is beautiful, only slightly less so than Walden Pond which is heavenly. Sunlight streams through the surface and blinks off a long, metal cable that runs the length of the swim course. My hands churned champagne bubbles as they sliced through water, though not the millions that rise like magic in Walden. Surrounded by tree-covered mountains, it's breathtaking every time you rise to breathe.
The water was just as cold, maybe colder actually, but the sun was shining, hard. There were more swimmers and the giant numbered Ironman buoys were up. Both gave me comfort and confidence. I realized my panic the day before likely had more to do with fear than cold. I got tripped up on my mind. But not this time. Not entirely, anyway. I walked out of the water after 40 minutes and sat on the beach, thrilled to have the monkey off my back.
Later, I rode my bike out of town to test the Ironman bike course. It's a 56-mile loop (which the athletes do twice) through scenic towns and open expanses that includes an infamous 5-mile descent not for the nervous. Kent topped 50 mph on it last year, 43 mph this year because it was wet. I thought I'd just ride the brakes and whatever, how bad can it be, I told Kent as I maneuvered my bike out of the hotel room.
Panic ensued nearly straightaway as I hugged the narrow shoulder against a low rock wall, the only barrier between me and the deadly plunge to an (exquisite) hanging lake below. I feathered my brakes down the entire goddam descent and stopped once to gather my wits for good measure. I didn't go a lick over 20 mph because I was too filled with terror. I'm not talking fear, I'm talking terror!
I cursed every ugly word I could muster and pronounced the descent unfun. The rest of the ride, though? Sheer joy.
I'm not used to this level of panic, not doing things I enjoy. As I rode, I thought, I'm all for conquering fears, I just wish I didn't have so many. And why does it seem like I have so many more these days?
It wasn't until the drive home from Lake Placid, when I suffered multiple panic attacks including a doozy of one as I was driving the Garden State Parkway that I realized this was chemical. Something was going on in my brain, you know? I pulled into a rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike and turned the driving over to Kent.
A few years ago, when my anxiety wires first tripped toward the extreme and I was diagnosed with premature menopause, I started taking estrogen as well as a regimen of supplements designed to stop the panic: fish oil, B12 and D3. I forgot all of the supplements on this trip. Maybe that's why the anxiety was peaking again.
That's what I thought until I woke this morning for yoga class and realized it was dark -- at 5:30. We're losing light already, summer is fading into autumn and in years past, I've noticed my anxiety levels tick up as the light fades and the season changes. It usually happens more toward the end of August, but it makes as much sense as anything else I can think of. Amazing, isn't it? That our bodies can be so tuned to the world around us. Now, I just need to find a solution. One that allows me to swim, bike and drive safely down a damn highway.
I went for a swim today and a handful of buoys short of the halfway point I realized I was really rather cold. Like shockingly cold. As in, maybe this is a little dangerous cold. I skirted the buoys and headed back to where I started, some half-mile away.
I started to scan the water and the shoreline for help. No boats nearby. A few houses off in the distance with people enjoying themselves on the docks. A handful of swimmers, all very far behind me.
This is how people drown, I thought. They get in trouble and slip quietly below the surface, unnoticed. I can't believe I'm going to die a few days before the Ironman while the kids eat lunch at a picnic table. This is really going to cast a pall over the race.
I was starting to freak myself out. I kept seeing a swimmer off my left shoulder but every time I looked up, there was no one. Just lake, trees. Can you hallucinate from the cold? I thought it was only heat that did that.
I lifted my goggles from my eyes and swam breaststroke to calm my breathing and the panic, but I didn't seem to be making progress and I kept getting colder. I'm swimming in place like a goddam Popsicle.
I made it back, obviously, 31 minutes after I left. The water wasn't THAT cold, 73 degrees, I think. Most people swam the course in full wetsuits, but not everyone. I saw several people without them and they made the course without seizing up from cold and fear.
So, what the heck happened? It's a glorious lake, maybe only second to Walden Pond for open-water swimming. No thrashing athletes jockeying for position, no currents, fresh water.
On the drive up to Lake Placid, I had a silent freak out about crossing a tall bridge in Maryland. I started worrying about it before we even left our house in the dark. By the time we were a few miles out, my hands were sweating and I was a nervous mess contemplating pulling to the side of the road to let Kent ferry us across. But then what? If I did that, I'd never cross myself again, I thought. I'd become the person too scared to cross bridges. Which is fine. People have phobias. I get that. I just don't want that particular one. I don't want to be the person who can't swim across lakes either. Now, I feel like I might be.
Do you think there's something about aging that makes us more fearful? Maybe my body chemistry has changed to make me more anxiety prone?
My first surprise, distinct panic attack hit me on the side of a gravelly mountain top in Denali on our honeymoon. Like panic attacks, it was totally irrational and no flood of calming words could ease me through it. We turned back from the summit and a prized view of Mt. McKinley from a different vantage point. I'm still a little bummed about that, but I try not to hold on to the regret as it leaves such little space for moving forward.
And yet, I feel oddly the same today. What to do, what to do?