Open Sesame

Today I was inspired by more than my mat.

I have a dear friend who has just taken her first few steps on this Yoga journey. With some gentle encouragement and a touch of trepidation she unrolled her mat and courageously took that first Yoga breath. After only one basic class she began taking the mixed level classes and when asked how she liked it, she said, “Eh, not so much. Yet.” The fact that she didn’t hear harp music and have woodland creatures eating out of her hand that first time makes me respect her more for taking a second class. Unseen forces are at work!

I had the privilege of practicing next to her today. Her willingness to have faith that there’s more there than meets her eye, further opened my mind and softened my heart. Bringing a sense of humor to the mat also helps, and she does that joyfully.

I started thinking back to my first days on a mat. I’d pay an extra dollar to rent a studio mat and make my way into one of the basic classes being offered. One was held in a spacious room with lots of light and the other was a small, dim somewhat gloomy room. Dull or bright, I would leave feeling better than when I entered. But I never considered going into a mixed level class. For many years I got stuck in my own beginner’s mind, not allowing for the possibility that I was advancing. The mat I used was like a stage, in that my energy was alive during my practice and was then left for someone else to play out his or her experience on the same mat.

Unlike a stage, the mat was not for performance, the play was not presented outwardly, but inwardly. The audience was not a house filled with bodies, but a heart filled with emotions ranging from fear to bliss. The satisfaction came not from applause for a good performance, rather from a soft place that perhaps went a little deeper than the time before. Once I got my own mat, I claimed my practice in a more personal way.

I imagine New York Yoga basic classes differ somewhat from those outside the city. The big room was often filled with ex-ballerinas & dancers working toward realigning their bodies, athletes adding Yoga to their routines and long time Yoga practitioners and teachers getting back to basics. Then there were those like myself, who knew something special was happening, and whose mats became a sanctuary. Beginners’ minds filled the room along with those of us with a beginner’s practice.

I make a distinction between beginner’s mind and beginner’s practice. While I am mindful to maintain a beginner’s mind in most of what I do, like pregnancy memory, I have forgotten the feeling of my beginner’s practice. Though I am far from intermediate or advanced, just by virtue of having a regular practice, some of the basic fear and insecurities I had at the start of my practice have fallen off. But it is a process and that process continues through every downward dog and vinyasa.

In those first days, I struggled with Triangle (Trikonasana), energetically more than physically. My teacher asked me to demonstrate one day and I did, feeling pretty good that my hand reached the floor with little effort. She was trying to get me to understand that it was more important to stack my hips and keep my torso in line with my legs, than to reach the floor. I totally did not get it. Then a few years later, after my first daughter was born, a very dear friend who is a senior teacher at a NYC Yoga studio told me that she could get me into a workshop with Rodney Yee. My adrenaline replaced the blood in my veins as my life flow, and then I got scared. I had no place being in that room! Forget that my practice was no longer consistent or that my body was still harboring more than a memory of pregnancy, I was still just a beginner who couldn’t get Triangle!

The room was packed, with maybe a couple of inches in between mats. I positioned myself safely out of view, near the door. So, we get to Trikonasana and my safe spot was revealed. We had done countless poses where my form was probably questionable, but leave it to my nemesis, Triangle, to attract the teacher’s attention. Rodney came over and, rather brusquely, said, “How are we going to get those hips stacked?” Nervously, I shrugged and said, “If you have a secret, I’d love to know.” He didn’t seem amused, but I left that day knowing that Trikonasana and I were destined to grow together.

It wasn’t until I started practicing in Bucks County, that I had a teacher who gently encouraged me to lengthen with the crown of my head. Lo and behold, Triangle. My hand now rests easily against my shin rather than rounding down, through my back, to the ground and my former nemesis has become a challenging, yet welcoming, friend.

In this world of immediate gratification, it is more important to be patient while the process takes its natural course. The faster computers go the slower they feel. The faster people pass us on the road the sooner we catch up to them at the red light. The magician says, “Open Sesame” and the magic happens before our eyes.

On the flip side, “slow and steady wins the race.” There is no secret to the magic of Yoga. There’s a reason it’s called a practice. Opening up our hips, shoulders, backs, legs, minds & hearts takes time. So, when my friend says that this practice doesn’t resonate with her just yet and still makes it to the mat, I applaud her. When she takes that studio mat and rolls it out in a mixed level class, I am moved by the warrior she already is.

Say to yourself, “Open Sesame,” and feel the magic as it unfolds over time.

Opening the Door

It’s amazing what we get used to.

Unpacked boxes and unfinished projects clutter my space and mind. I find a short-cut through the piles which make up my indoor landscape. As the piles multiply and expand my short-cut grows, becoming a daily navigation around the growing obstacles. I get used to it and it becomes part of my life, the daily journey through my narrowing space.  The piles are now representations of furniture and abstract art sculptures.

Then, one day, I begin to clear more than a path. The piles must go. One by one, homes are found for the items I deem worth saving. And slowly, but surely, the space is transformed into one of openness. Nothing is obscured from sight. My breath comes more slowly and deeply and my shoulders drop.

I take stock and realize, wow, this space has been here the whole time. I got so used to adapting, I forgot to take action. It excites me to know that beneath the clutter remaining to be cleared, in my house and in my head, there is more space to uncover. I remove the physical objects through action and unnecessary thoughts through stillness. In each case, I am lightening my load and clearing a path for what’s to come.

It seems to me that the challenge of all New Yorkers is to make room where there is none.  When I lived in Manhattan, I lived in six different apartments in five different neighborhoods. It was easy to become lost in the clutter in the tiny apartments I called home. The small voice in my gut informed a dream I had, periodically, in each apartment. The dream was always the same in content, but varied in form. The gist of it was that after exploring my space, I would find the Extra Room. In one apartment on W. 10th Street, the dream was so vivid I actually looked behind the refrigerator the next day to see if there was a door.

What I’ve learned since then is that there’s always a door.

Shifting Gears

I woke up this morning trying to reconcile missing my Monday morning Yoga class. My mind and body have taken so long to regain a regular practice, that any interruption, be it illness, PTO, kids’ schedules or basic life needs, forces me to practice Mind-Bending Yoga. Breathing into those places in my mind that are tight, the same way I breathe into tightness in my body, in Asana practice, reinforcing my mind’s flexibility. On days like this I wonder if I can go deeper. And then I do.

Sometimes the shifts are so subtle, but make a huge impact.

When my oldest daughter was two years old, I took a rare moment to unroll my mat and practice with a DVD. My husband planned to entertain her while I closed the guest room door for some oh so needed Me time. Her strong will was no match for his good intentions and before I knew it, she was knocking down the door. My first response was a deeply rooted selfish one. And as I looked her in the eyes, telling her she had to go back downstairs to Daddy, that this was Mommy’s time, I had an epiphany. This sweet child would only be this small and this sort of sweet for a short time. SHIFT.

In that moment, I changed the picture of my practice to include my daughter. Once I saw here there with me, I knew in which direction to focus my mindfulness. We played Yoga for 30 minutes, together. We had a blast! Four years later, I’m fairly sure we set one of her stepping stones on the path to the person she will become.

Today, I decided that it was okay not to stick hard and fast to my idea of how the start of my week was going to be. Sometimes there are unseen forces at play. I was reminded, when I picked up my two year old and felt a different kind of shift in my lower back. A day of rest can restore more than a body, it can reset a mind.

*Mind-Bending Yoga is a term I use to describe more than meditation in motion. Meditative breathing while in stillness or in chaos, in life or on a cushion, not intending to eradicate thought, rather to ease the stressful aspects of certain thoughts by breathing into them. As we do in Asana practice when we focus our breath to discomfort in the body, only it’s direction is toward our mind.

Mapping the Practice

I bow to a pop art Buddha. He greets me as I top the stairs and again when I enter my bedroom. He is brother to the hand carved wooden Buddha from Kathmandu and our Ho Tai garden Buddha. The trifecta of Buddha energy and love. They are subtle daily reminders. How close am I to the Path today? Am I parallel by inches or miles or do I intersect it at a right angle? Am I on it? Can I even see it?

Being a parent is another, though less subtle, compass to locating the Path. What comes up in the course of a day, guiding these fresh, as-of-yet-uncontaminated minds & hearts, often touches on lessons with which I’m still grappling. The spiritual practice of parenting is both the most challenging and satisfying on my path thus far. It has the potential of bringing out the best and worst in my personality, and with each breath I make a choice. My children are my greatest teachers and I am their humble student.

My first Yoga teacher once told me, when I was lamenting a lost opportunity, that we have unlimited “do-overs.” This simple statement did not excuse past behavior, nor did it encourage future lethargy. It did, however, remind me to fully make the most of the opportunities of now. So, when I fall or take an unfortunate action, I know I can take another breath and make a better choice.

The effort comes in living more days on or near the Path, than not. Some days I spot the Path and wink, like we have a secret understanding of the nature of our relationship. I am devoted, curious and deeply moved by these practices of mindfulness even though I sometimes travel, temporarily, in another direction. I always go back. It seems I’m going back more frequently and for longer durations.

I am so grateful to be on the mat!

Yoga Baby Steps

Everything leads up to now. Doesn’t it always?

It seems I’ve been on a life-long journey to seek truth. Not The Truth, but truth where it lives in each experience. I guess that’s partly why I never gravitated toward any one clique, but fanned out to include samples of various personalities to make up my group of friends. Stereotypes create a list of definitions, but do not embody truth, individuals do. Even as I was following the Grateful Dead, I would find myself wandering the parking lots for some lost truth I felt was lacking in the group-speak. Like Dorothy, I have come to learn that I don’t have to venture beyond my own world to find truth. That said, my seeking journey seems to have just begun. Now, I must wander through myself and truly practice being present to find what I seek.

The practices of Yoga & meditation resonate as ongoing adventures toward clarity, enlightenment, truth. The Spiritual Path (not referring to organized religion, but the knowledge that we are all connected) has always been present in my life, in one form or another. Sometimes I walk beside the Path, intending one day to get back on it and other times I crisscross it with good intention but waning action & faulty follow-through. Then there are those times when I feel I’ve trod the Path at length, but then fall far by the wayside only to glimpse the Path in the far distance. Lately, my intentions & actions have found harmony, resulting in a beautiful expression of consistency & commitment.

My very first Yoga class was at OM Yoga, 10 years ago when it was on 14th Street. That first class was held in a small room, with creaky floors, a leaky radiator & water-stained ceiling. I struggled with the asanas but felt great after class. I tried to put my finger on the feeling, and all I could come up with was that something special was going on and I wanted to be part of it.

I developed a fairly regular practice and was becoming more intrigued with each downward dog. I took a lateral step to the Shambhala Center a few blocks away and experienced the richness of the Shambhala training programs: Heart of Warriorship & Sacred Path. I entered a new, yet familiar, comfort zone where I felt no need to wander outside myself.

Life’s beautiful milestones including marriage, moving and children lovingly distracted me for a while. My mat and cushion found their own stillness in my new, more spacious suburban closet. Three children later, I became the nucleus to the atom of my family, leaving my Self to take a temporary back seat. As the kids have succumbed to the nature of time, they are now each in school, for at least a few hours a week. Settling into the scheduling groove and finding a few weekly hours to devote to myself, I saw the Path resurface, moving from my peripheral vision into full view.

I got back on the Path a few months ago when I decided to invite Yoga into my life on a more daily basis than a whenever-I-can-fit-it-in basis. It started slowly, with a weekly basic evening class and grew to adding a mixed level class on Saturday morning. Then, circumstances allowed me to add Sunday morning, too. Now that the kids are back in school (albeit varying times & places), my schedule can hold three weekdays at the gym and Family Yoga at end the week. I’m not sure how this happened, but it is quite remarkable.

The magic has already begun to whirl.

I am thrilled & humbled by this practice.

And curious.