Eclipse Mania

I was in second grade when I first learned what a solar eclipse was. After the teacher’s lesson, I remember borrowing an old, beat-up children’s science book from the library, reading that the next total eclipse in the United States would take place in 2017, and thinking to myself that somehow, someway, I would find a way to see it. As fate would have it, on Monday, August 21, 2017, as the new moon passed in front of the sun over the continental U.S., I was living in the path of totality.

What was it like, you ask?

Imagine the biggest, brightest full moon you’ve ever seen, a real harvest moon that turns the night almost as bright as day. Picture that moonlight becoming nebulous and taking on an otherworldly quality, as though it were turning to elf-light or fae-light. Now imagine shifting all that silver to the very edges of the moon, so that you’re left with a slate-grey orb surrounded by a glowing, almost shimmering corona. That’s totality.

It was like stepping into a Dali painting.

It was exactly like NASA’s most stunning eclipse photos, only better.

It was, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

Total eclipse (India, 1980) image

Photography by High Altitude Observatory/NCAR (India, 1980)

In that short time when the moon passed in front of the sun, many of the steady patterns that govern our days shattered. The moon, which so often reflects the sun’s light, eclipsed it instead. The sun rose and set not once but twice in one day.  And, during those two-and-a-half minutes when onlookers stood united in wonder, strangers became best friends.

Perhaps it’s naïve of me, but I hope that we can carry this memory, this metaphor, into the days ahead. I hope we can remember that we can shatter our old patterns and create beauty in their place.

Namaste, friends.

On Bees and Handstands

Like most of us, I developed a fear of bees at a very young age. Several barefoot walks through lawns full of clover and one memorable stumble across a ground hornet’s nest reinforced the notion that bees=stings. Even though I knew, intellectually, that bees pollinated flowers, that they didn’t sting unless provoked, and that their hive structure was complex and fascinating, I still wanted nothing to do with them.

Flash forward about two decades, and I found myself tasked with scientifically surveying pollinators, including bees. At first I kept my distance, approaching only enough to identify the insect and then quickly backing away. Over time though, as I watched bees going about their business, as I recorded which flowers they visited and how often, I realized they truly didn’t care about my presence. I could lean in until my nose was barely inches from their bodies, and they would continue visiting flowers as though I weren’t there. I had gone from knowing (in my head) that I didn’t need to fear bees to feeling the truth of it.

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Funnily, yoga is often the same. Fear comes into the asana practice more often than I think any of us anticipated when we first came into our mats. Fear of falling out of a pose or overstretching a muscle, fear of aggravating an old injury or creating a new one, fear shared by many practitioners or fear unique to each individual.

Some of these fears are wise; others, not so much. And so, in the yoga practice, we work not with the idea of ridding ourselves of fear, but knowing where to place our fear.

For example, I have hypermobile shoulder joints. The head of my armbone tends to want to come unplugged from my shoulder socket; if this happens while I’m in an arm balance, there’s a good chance I’ll either a.) dislocate my shoulder or b.) fall flat on my face. Handstand terrified me, and for years I avoided the pose completely and focused on building stability in my shoulders with asana and weights.

The pose comes much more easily to me now, and I’ve lost much of my fear of the prep work. This afternoon, I took class from my teacher, Stacey, and we worked into handstand with a single partner. Even though I could feel that my shoulders were integrated and my arms were steady, I was surprised by the twinge of nervousness that entered my stomach once I was upside down, nervousness that I knew was irrational. The fear that had once kept me safe from injury was no longer serving me the way it once did, but it still lingered.

The transition from knowing a fear is misplaced to feeling the truth of it takes time, patience, and a willingness to explore those areas we find slightly uncomfortable. More importantly, moving past fear in yoga takes honesty and a willingness to respect the fears which are wise and challenge those which are misplaced.

Goodbyes Are Never Easy

One of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, once wrote “He had noticed that events were cowards: they didn’t occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once,” and over these past few weeks, I’ve been feeling the truth of this statement.

Some of these events I had planned for (my sister’s graduation, the start of my Yoga for Men class). Others were unfortunate, but not completely unexpected (contracting a cold shortly after a plane flight). However, there was one event that completely blindsided me: the death of my grandmother.

In the week leading up to her passing, I had been teaching around the idea of staying rooted, both on our mats and in life, of keeping in mind those thoughts or actions that keep us strong and calm. And though words can’t describe how much I’ll miss my grandmother, there are a few thoughts keeping me steady.

I’m grateful that she passed peacefully, surrounded by family that loved her. Since her health had been poor for some time, I’m grateful that she’s free from the suffering that accompanied her last weeks. And mostly, I’m rooted in the memory that her last words to me were “I love you.”

Rest in peace, grandma. Love always.

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Eudaemonic Happiness

This afternoon, I stumbled across an interesting piece in the New Yorker regarding the concept of eudaemonic happiness, which Aristotle described in Nicomachean Ethics.  Eudaemonic happiness is, quite simply, the idea that happiness is a practice, not a feeling or a destination. It’s being in the moment, being engaged in the action.

It goes without saying that this concept is nothing new. *rim shot* However, in studies that have since been replicated, researchers have found correlations between levels of eudaemonic happiness and genome function. Whereas loneliness and isolation induced a defensive state in the body–increased inflammation, decreased antiviral response–high levels of eudaemonic happiness were associated with the opposite profile. In short, increased eudaemonic happiness may lead to health benefits.

Although the article did not address yoga per se, I nonetheless see parallels between the yogic idea of “being in the now” and Aristotle’s eudaemonic happiness. Both concepts say, “Be present. Engage with the process. Find happiness here in this moment.” It’s worth remembering that when we live this practice, we may be helping ourselves on a physiologically fundamental level.

The Sky by Night

Doesn’t it seem that sometimes there are periods of time when a particular image crops up in our lives over and over again? In my case, at this moment, that image is the sky by night.  From a Star Trek marathon several weeks ago, to the release of the book A Court of Wings and Ruin—which featured the night sky as a motif—on May 2, to the full moon hanging overhead just last week, I’ve between preoccupied by the thought of what lies beyond the blue marble we call home. It’s a universal, almost primal image—humans have likely been fascinated by the stars since we climbed down from the trees—but it has taken over my mind in full force.

I’m reminded of a night at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory several years ago, when I saw the arm of the Milky Way galaxy for the first time. Having grown up on the east coast of the U.S., surrounded by light pollution, I had never understood how numerous the visible stars really were. That night in Colorado was clear and frigid, and I was 9500 ft above sea level, miles away from the nearest town, and the entire sky looked like an image taken by the Hubble Telescope.

Beneath the Milky Way

Image from the European Southern Observatory in the Chilean Desert. The view in Colorado was almost identical to this. Photo by ESO/Luis Calçada/Herbert Zodet (http://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1613a/) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In the context of yoga, this memory makes me think of the philosophical idea of the malas (with a short “a”—mala with a long “a” is a meditation tool), and I taught a class around this concept last week. The malas are thought of as cloaks or veils that prevent us from perceiving our fullest self. They’re like a layer of dust obscuring the lens of a camera, or the clouds and light pollution that prevent us from seeing the stars.

The first of these is Anava mala, which refers to the illusion of being limited or unworthy. When we feel insecure and incomplete, self-doubting and ashamed, we’re experiencing anava mala.

The second is Mayiya mala, the illusion of being different, separate from the rest of the world. Mayiya mala gives rise to feelings of isolation, anger, or jealousy.

The third is Karma mala, which relates to action. When we experience Karma mala, we feel “stuck” or stagnant, unable to act.

Yogic philosophy teaches that these malas are part of the fabric of existence; they are something we all experience, and as long as we live, the malas will arise. As such, we should recognize them for what they are: cloaks and illusions, not our true, highest self.

Live long and prosper, my friends.

P.S. This afternoon, one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, posted an anecdote about imposter syndrome. Not only does it relate to the night sky, I feel it beautifully illustrates the importance of recognizing the malas when they arise. It’s a brief read; you can find it here.

The Yoga of Writer’s Block

Notice anything about this recent attempt at writing a blog entry?

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Notice how each new paragraph is crossed out? How again and again, I tried to start, only to run headfirst into that wall known as “writer’s block?”

Sometimes the yoga practice can be the same way. Eventually the initial “rush” wears off, and we discover our own blocks: a challenging pose, for example, or a particularly tight area of the body, or a negative thought pattern we haven’t learned to let go of. I was reminded yesterday afternoon, during City Yoga’s “yoga lab,” of just how humbling the asana practice can be, when I met my edge sooner than I anticipated time and time again, as my arms began shaking while we explored arm balances and inversions.

Often it’s tempting to either beat ourselves to death against that block or walk away entirely, but it’s at these times, I feel, that the idea of devotion comes into play. Devotion is a nuanced topic that permeates yogic philosophy (Bhakti, or devotional, yoga is considered its own path, distinct from Hatha yoga), but the core of devotion is love. It’s a blend of grit–a willingness to keep coming back, to keep trying–and softness–a willingness to be patient, to explore and shift.

In asana, devotion might mean backing away from a challenging pose but diligently practicing the preparatory work, or it might mean taking a minute to roll out your mat and sit with your breath during those times when you really don’t want to practice.

In my writing, devotion meant staring down the blank page but shifting my focus. Only when I stopped trying to force myself to write and started asking “How do I find the yoga in writer’s block?” did the words begin to flow.

It’s when we keep coming back–differently and creatively, but diligently–that transformation takes place.

I wish you all a wonderful week. 🙂

The Edge*

No doubt as a direct result of the company I keep, articles on yoga crop up in my Facebook feed fairly often. The quality varies–yoga websites, like most of the internet, aren’t immune to clickbait–but yesterday morning, my friend and fellow teacher Shannon posted a gem of an article about alleviating back pain. However, the article included a definition of a concept referred to in yoga as “the edge,” and one line in particular caught my attention: the edge is “the fine line between self-destruction and self-improvement.” (Ken Dychtwald in Living Yoga, as quoted by Yoga International).

And in a physical practice, that line is fine indeed. In the Western world, and especially in the realm of competitive sports, the dominant motto is quite often “No pain, no gain.” During my years as a competitive swimmer, I took this statement a bit too deeply to heart, pushing past the point of self-improvement into overtraining and exhaustion. I can remember a few instances shortly after I began practicing asana when only youth and luck saved me from a dislocated shoulder, before I began to recognize and respect my body’s limits.

More difficult to find, I feel, is “the edge” in life off the mat. We all know, intellectually, that when we royally screw up, the healthy response is “This is my fault, but I WILL learn and do better in the future”–but how often do we place the blame elsewhere or else convince ourselves we’re worthless because of our mistakes? When we’re driven, it’s natural to begin working harder and longer, but how often do we fail to notice when that extra effort starts translating into exhaustion instead of improvement? Conversely, do we notice when we swing too far in the opposite direction, when healthy self-care begins to turn into overindulgence or sloth?

“The edge” challenges, but does not injure. As the article states, “To avoid your edge ensures stagnation, while going beyond it can cause harm.” Can we aim to explore our personal edge, both on and off the mat, whereever it may be?

 

 

*My apologies if the Aerosmith song “Living on the Edge” is now running through your head–it was stuck in mine while I wrote this! 😉