The Alchemy of Yoga

Sometimes, looking at the horrors of our present age, my thoughts run to “what is the ever-loving point of any of this?”

It’s a heaviness that gives despair the reins. In the wee hours, my brain chatter runs to the bleakest possible things. Teachers I admire and love, young people I care about are attempting to teach and learn… while fearing they might be the next victims of a school shooter? Devastating, terrifying. Unthinkable.

And what of the shooter, of shooters-in-the-making? How deep does our alienation go, that we continue to look away while people tumble into darkness? Would a life-affirming culture continue to produce people with little respect for life?

Yoga is where I get a visceral sense of alienation’s opposite. Yoga means union. In yoga practice, I alchemize my despair, and hold space for the collective to heal. The dysfunctional culture plants its stunted seeds into me, waiting for me to curl inward, grow cynical, turn my back. Yoga grows a new plant entirely.

I go to yoga class to be with my people. My yoga studio welcomes people of all body types, ethnicities, ages, and orientations. (My teacher is one of a new vanguard of instructors extending yoga to populations that might not gravitate to it: veterans, people with addictions, older folks, people with disabilities.)

We roll out our mats, sometimes josh and tease, sometimes get serious right away. Our teacher guides us into quietness through simple breath awareness.

We don’t have to stop the mind from its prattling. Just notice where it’s gone and take another conscious breath.

20414040_10156336785918942_1377376101073977175_o.jpg

The movements may be slow and easy, slow and challenging, or flowy and strenuous, depending on the class. But always there’s the pairing of breath with motion, the sensation of really inhabiting the body that so often goes ignored. Union.

If tears threaten, we let them come. It’s all OK.

We are here to challenge our habitual patterns of mind. We are here for community and communion. We are here to find some silence in the fray. We are here to refill our wells. We are here to stretch bodies that sit too much, or ease bodies that work too hard. We are here to touch into timelessness.

By the end of class we’ve been rearranged a little bit. We might leave class kinder than we went in. We will go back to the fractious world, the intractable problems, contributing in whatever way we do, letting go of “what’s the point,” at least temporarily.

The closing invocation might fall into the much-maligned “thoughts and prayers” category, but for me it is a powerful statement of connection that does not preclude action. It invokes what can be, what must be if we want to survive and thrive as a collective.

“May all beings be safe. May all beings be happy. May all beings be healthy. May all beings know peace, be free from all delusion, and walk through their lives with ease.”

And the light within each of us grows brighter, so we can continue to hold others in Light.

Prairie Skies

I wanted to be Laura Ingalls for a fairly long period in my childhood. If there could have been a buck-toothed, four-eyed Halfpint, it would have been me. I went so far as to wear my hair in two braids for the entirety of third grade. I also begged for a yellow sunbonnet that (if memory serves) my mother hand-sewed for me.

Laura_Ingalls_Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder

In a nostalgic mood, I recently read the eye-opening Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Today happens to be Wilder’s birthday. Happy 151st to an icon of my youth.

My passion pre-dated the TV version of Little House on the Prairie, which debuted in 1974. I was 6 when my Grandma Miller gave my older brother the first volume of the series for Christmas in 1972. I can’t remember when I first got my mitts on Little House on the Big Woods, but safe to say it was my cup of tea.

Big Woods was likely the first chapter book I read on my own. Before long I had read the entire series through. I’m guessing I promptly started over again at the beginning. Throughout my bookwormish girlhood I read them too many times to count, and they’re on my bookshelf still.

My early writing efforts owe a debt to these books. I remember matching the name on the spine with the character in the book. I’m not sure if I knew that writing was an actual profession carried out by real people until that moment.

If I get quiet enough, I can almost slide back into the wonder of first opening those books and living in their pages. The magic of a world where everything was handmade, down to leather hinges on the smokehouse door.

20180207_110918 (764x1024)

My beloved and battered 1972 copy of the first volume.

 

My favorite was On the Banks of Plum Creek. Living in a dugout sounded so sensible and yet romantic. Wilder left out the scorpions and spiders. The privy was somewhere offscreen.

(Also unmentioned: the fact that Pa was a squatter in at least one of the homesites he chose for his family—claiming land legally still in Native American hands.)

The sweep of those stories riveted me—and my friends, who used to join me in pretend-harvesting “wheat” by pulling the seedheads from weedy grasses growing in untended corners of our city block.

Memory made these books, and now they are tied up in my memories (and millions others’). I’m nostalgic for something that was originally an act of nostalgia: Wilder wrote her books a half century after her own childhood, in a sometimes-painful look back at a time and place lost to her.

Her Pa was one of the homesteaders settling the West, cutting down trees in the Big Woods, plowing up native grasses on the Prairie that later would become the Dust Bowl. The wilderness that both he and Laura loved was imperiled by just this impulse to settle and farm.

Nostalgia aside, I wouldn’t want to turn back time, to the days in the 1970s when I lost myself for hours on end in these books. Or to the days when pioneers staked claims on land wheedled away from its original inhabitants.

We were sold a line in the opening paragraphs of Big Woods, in which Wilder wrote that to the north of their log cabin, for miles and miles, “There were no people…only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.” Of course there were people: the first people, the ones who knew the Big Woods better than any white settler.

Prairie Fires sets the stage for the Ingalls’ westward migration by recounting the Dakota people’s fight for their territory along the Mississippi. The Homestead Act had just offered free land to every American citizen over 21. If a homesteader lasted five years, they would receive a deed to the property. Though scientists cautioned the government against encouraging farming in the arid west, the bureaucrats didn’t listen, and so began America’s ill-fated “sodbusting” fervor.

What’s clear to me now as an adult is that Wilder’s cozy familial scenes masked real privation, not to mention deep injustice and dubious land practices.

So much of what majority Americans have comfortably assumed as truth is in revision these days, as we learn the hidden stories behind our assumptions.

When we look back at this time in Western history, if we survive it, one name for it could be The Great Unveiling. A time of necessary awakening, innocence lost (in long overdue fashion, we might venture to say).

We don’t need to cling to the illusions of our youth. We’re strong enough to contain all of these truths: our childhood selves and the simple wonders we first opened to, and our adolescent selves who only wanted to be right and unchallenged, and our (may it be so) growing adult consciousness of the hurts and injustices inextricably tied to this country’s origins.

For me, cracking these books today, for just a second I can still vibrate with the same enthrallment as I did when I first devoured them. I never wanted to come to end of the last book. When the TV show proved to be a sad imitation, it didn’t stop me watching week after week—and it wasn’t Michael Landon’s locks and dimples that kept me coming back. I suspect that already in 1974, I wanted to recapture the thrill of discovering that world for the first time.

Prairie Fires traces the arc of Wilder’s adult life, showing the hardship of losing everything with her husband shortly after their marriage, and later a troubled relationship with her daughter. Most of it was hard to read. But I am coming to the conclusion that knowing more about their author, or the complexities in her life and work, can never dim my love for her books.

Because I still carry that wide-eyed girl inside me, the one who wished for Laura’s pluck and strength (yes, even her chores)—and neverending prairie skies.

Dubious Science: The “Talking Killer Whale”

Scientists in France have taught a killer whale named Wikie to make sounds in mimicry of “hello” and “bye-bye” and other human syllables.

An authority is quoted as saying, “Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, which, along with other advanced cognitive skills, has fueled the evolution of human culture … The subject made recognizable copies of all familiar and novel and human sounds tested and did so relatively quickly.”

Um. So what?

This gimmick advancement in human-whale relations is supposed to support a hypothesis of social learning in mimicry among wild orca populations.

But really, it seems to me a silly trick, like making a parakeet wear bunny ears or something, just because we can. It reminds me of those disrespectful photoshopped images that goofify furry critters. You know what I’m talking about. People try to make mammals look cuter by morphing their muzzles into smiling lips. Usually with a sappy caption that no self-respecting nonhuman animal would ever “say.”

I mean, animals are brilliant on their own, without needing to jump through our stupid hoops. And they’re plenty beautiful without benefit of Photoshop.

1154300836_5c66f4fa9f_z

Photo by “JellyBean” via Flickr Creative Commons

I think of the book by esteemed primatologist Frans de Waal, titled Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? and the answer seems to be: No.

Must we demean a noble species by teaching it to twist its vocalizing apparatus in a semi-successful attempt to sound like us? Is that a good use of research dollars? Surely the orca has its own intricate and elegant communications genius, of which the audible variety is only one method. (Echolocation, body language, telepathy?)

If you look up “threats to orca” you find lists like this: habitat loss, chemical pollution, loss of food supply due to hydroelectric dams and other human encroachment, etc. Not to mention being captured for marine mammal parks like the one where 14-year-old “Wikie” lives. 

I won’t lie, I was thrilled with Shamu the Killer Whale as a youngster visiting Sea World. The tricks! The jumps! The splash! But … haven’t we all grown up a bit since the 1980s?

The orca who learned to “speak” lives at MarineLand in Antibes, France, which has been the target of protests and investigations for mistreatment of the sea mammals.

“Bye-bye,” indeed.

Surely we are the ones who could stand to learn from our wild cousins. An apex predator like the orca: Does it kill more than it needs to fill its belly and care for its young? Or does it live in balance with its habitat, like every other creature on the planet with the exception of homo sapiens?

What a step for humankind it would be, if we humbled ourselves enough to consider the possibility of mimicry in the other direction.

Flowers in 2018

A friend posted a simple graphic soon after the start of 2018. If I remember right (I can’t find it just now) it showed two characters, one worried-faced and wringing hands, one kneeling in the dirt. The first gives a litany of worries about the new year familiar to anyone paying attention. So much going wrong.

The second says, still kneeling, hands in dirt: “I think the new year is going to bring flowers.”

First: “Why would you say that?”

Second: “Because I’m planting flowers.”

CIMG3806 (1024x768)Such a simple reminder of two basic facts:

a) Doing something helpful with your hands feels better than wringing them.

b) We all make the future with everyday small acts.

Every choice we make adds up to our personal consequences and our collective reality. It’s easy to slip into believing, in this aggrandizing age, that only the big mouthpiece and the viral video—the people who gain widespread attention—can possibly make a difference. But every single small thing adds up, and in fact there are no small things at all.

The energy of a kiss blown in love is no different from a kind word offered to another or a generous gift affecting hundreds of thousands. There’s no need for “scalable,” for “platform,” for “visibility,” not on the level of karmic consequence.

And for added perspective, remember, in the words of Paramahansa Yogananda:

Infinity is our Home. We are just sojourning awhile in the caravanserai* of the body. Those who are drunk with delusion have forgotten how to follow the trail that leads to God. But when in meditation the Divine gets hold of the prodigal child, there is no dallying anymore. Enter the portals of the New Year with new hope. Remember you are a child of God. It lies with you as to what you are going to be.

*I had to look this up. It refers to a roadside inn, especially along the Silk Road. Body as inn: I like it! (Similarly Rumi writes, “This being human is a guest house” and exhorts us to greet every joy and sorrow as a visitor.)

What shall we plant in 2018? The seeds of flowers, of justice, of awareness, of transformation?

Permit me another quote, from venerable author Ursula K. Le Guin, who died Monday:

“The law of evolution is that the strongest survives!’ ‘Yes, and the strongest, in the existence of any social species, are those who are most social. In human terms, most ethical…There is no strength to be gained from hurting one another. Only weakness.”

Let’s plant the seeds of Le Guin’s brand of strength.

Dances of Universal Peace

On the first day of 2018, I joined a circle of lovely souls in sacred movement and song. A friend took me to the New Year’s Day Dances of Universal Peace meetup in my town, and though I knew only a few people there, I felt a marvelous kinship with everyone.

In Dances of Universal Peace  (aka “sufi dancing”), I learned, participants make the music themselves, taking beautiful, mystical pieces from many spiritual traditions. We sang (and clapped and stamped), while members of the group rotated duties on guitar, drum, shruti box, and piano.

Not a cell phone in sight. What nourishment for my analog self. A couple songs in, I felt positively incandescent. It seemed like the other participants were aglow as well.

In the intro to one of the first numbers, I learned that the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas has a passage in which the disciples ask Jesus what is required of them. “Do you want us to fast? How should we pray? Should we give to charity? What diet should we observe?”

Jesus said, “Don’t lie, and don’t do what you hate.” (A succinct mantra for someone who craves authenticity and alignment in 2018.)

Some of the dances were energizing, some mesmerizing. In the sweetest ones, like “May the Lady Bless and Keep You,” we offered each other a blessing through our words and motions. With winter-chapped hands clasped to each other’s, we sang into each other’s eyes.

At one point I started to cry from the intensity of it. The joy of holding space for such a living breathing thing as peace. And how rare it is to really behold someone else’s beauty, and shine one’s own soul fully.

 

Here’s a rousing one we did, singing to Govinde and Radhe (Krishna and his beloved, whom I blogged about earlier this year). The video is from elsewhere but captures the spirit of Dances of Universal Peace. Note the big smiles. I can testify that it is nearly impossible to keep a smile off your face while singing, spinning, and slapping hands.

Watching this, I’m already itching for the next meetup, which I’m told will be a “Zikr,” a meditative evening: slow movement, singing the names of God. Trancy. I’m so there.

This is definitely an energy I want to keep with me in 2018. It seems more important than ever to find ways to connect with each other and Spirit, and to nurture both body and soul.

How does that look for you? Are you trying anything new this year to increase your joy and resilience? I’d love to know what you’re doing to nourish your sweet spirit.

One Resolution

Twenty-four years ago, possibly to the day, I made this drawing in a sketchpad.

20171231_105119 (1024x779)

Crayon drawing I made Dec. 30 or 31, 1994

The picture started from a doodle. I didn’t know I was drawing an alien and spaceship till they emerged.

I did know that I felt quite alien myself, and had all my life. As I went into 1994 (at 27 years old) I was trying to integrate this understanding of myself. I wrote “Hail Earthlings” as my greeting to the rest of the human race, closed the notebook and moved on.

Pre-social network days—and I’m not even sure I was on the Internet much in 1993—I didn’t realize how many others felt (and feel) this sense of being “other.”

In this connected age, we aliens have started to find each other. We’re getting bolder about showing up in all our freaky glory.

I think of the admonishment some of my religiously-brought-up friends often heard as they headed to school: “Remember who you are.” Meaning, behave yourselves, represent the family and the church, be shining examples of godliness, etc.

Well, now we are remembering who we are for real. And it isn’t about good behavior this time, but about authenticity.

20171231_112257 (629x800)

Any other weird kids want to come out and play?

It turns out that being authentic is actually the way to be “godly”—if you believe, as I do, that we are all born with spiritual gifts that yearn to be expressed. The only way to move closer to our Divine nature is to truly be ourselves, to align outward action with the truth of who we are on the inside.

What’s more, that’s the best way to participate in the healing of the world.

What a revelation. What a resolution.

Let’s not close the notebook on our weirdness. No more modulating what we do in a doomed quest to fit in.

“Let your freak flag fly.” That was the guidance given to a friend recently, the same friend I had counseled, “Just do you, and you’ll soar.”

So how about it: Want to “do you” in 2018?

Let that be the one resolution that you keep. Let 2018 be the year of freak-flag-flying and remembering… and healing the world through the authentic expression of our beautiful kaleidoscopic gifts.

Designing Life in Alignment

image2

Every year around Solstice time, we build a fire and burn what we’re ready to release, and welcome the return of the light. This year I released my rigidity, and my need to “do it all/do it perfectly/do it at the expense of what really matters.”

This tendency is in full force as I try to scratch my annual (unrealistic) itch to tie up loose ends before Dec. 31. And to plan a stellar New Year—I’m a sucker for a fresh start.

In that vein, I bought a new tool called a Passion Planner. I’m so excited about it that I couldn’t wait for 2018 to start, so I printed out some blank pages from the freebies on the website, and started planning the heck out of the last few days of 2017.

20171216_132037 (768x1024)

I bought the eco-version, which is a reusable cover with an insert that can be switched out year to year. Two starter stickers were included.

Irony: I just posted about flowing and obeying internal nudges. I may be crazy, but I think I can integrate structure with flow, and this might be just the tool to do it.

20171219_122320 (800x540)

Opal goes to the petsitter.

So now I’m geeking out. I bought erasable ink pens, some stickers, and a roll of balloon-patterned Washi tape.

I’ve never used Washi tape in my life. I’m not the least bit crafty. I’m way better at writing than drawing. But I’ve started putting goofy little sketches in my planner pages, just for fun.

Now whenever I spend my early morning hour on my writing project, I’m rewarding myself with a sticker. Jennifer Louden blogged about celebrating our daily efforts, and these nerd-stickers help with that.

20171219_122817 (800x600)

Sticker!

 

I also love that the planner has space to write “Good Things That Happened” each week. I’m recording things like a heron sighting, a new client, a neighbor all happy showing me her progress after an injury.

Of course, a planner can’t advise me on the best time for a walk based on the weather and the body’s needs (or the dog’s wishes). It can’t plan for all the interruptions that pop up in life. It can’t magically make my ever-extending to-do list cross itself out.

20171219_092917 (800x559)

Holiday baking

What it can do is:

1. Help me minimize distractions and lower priorities, based on my higher commitments and plans. (A good question: Do you want to be known for your writing, or for your swift email responses?)

20171219_122453 (800x800)

Love the “not-to-do” box.

2. Help me be more judicious in what I schedule, based on a realistic assessment of time. If I see how long something really takes, and block time, I realize that I can’t do the 10 million other things that crowd into my brain whenever I have appointment-free space.

In short, I have to choose. Choosing is always tricky.

Which brings me to no. 3:

3. Help me design my life based on my mission. This particular planner starts off with space to map the most important pledges. (OK it calls them “goals” but as I mentioned before, “pledge” or “commitment” works better for me.) It sets them up in a 3-month, 1-year, 3-year, and lifetime span. With these pledges literally at the forefront—they’re in the first few pages of the planner—I can align my daily choices more consciously.

Very exciting stuff.

But back to rigidity. I can get all tense about my lists and plans. Truly my left brain LOVES these tools. It loves to schedule every minute of my day with the intent of DOING IT ALL. In fact, my left brain reminds me of the greedy villain from every Saturday morning cartoon show of my childhood. After gaining enough power or whatever (in this case list check-offs), “Finally—I shall RULE the WORLD!”.

(I always wondered, why would anyone want to rule the world?)

It’s getting easier to talk back to my left brain, to bring it back into integration with my body and my higher Self (Soul). I can tell it, I know that you had this plan to go like gangbusters all day and check off a million things, so that tomorrow we can get up early and do it all over again, but what we really need today is some open time to rest and integrate. 

Left brain devalues dreamy-drifty time. So does society. But time to noodle is so critical to quality of life. And, it turns out to be absolutely key to my true work as a writer and energy worker.

That’s where internal listening comes in. The roadmap provided by my soul must align with the roadmap I’m unspooling in this planner.

My intention is not more constriction, but more spaciousness in my life, and the clarity gained from working my Passion Planner can help with that.

At the fire, on the flip side of my little wood round where I’d written “rigidity,” I wrote “passion.” On the other side of the card where I’d written my “do it all” refrain, I wrote “I commit to alignment.” These are the things I invoke for this next cycle.

What about you? What do you release, what do you invoke? And does a planner figure into your process? (What kind do you use, and how do you use it? I’m so curious!)

20171220_104416 (1024x781)

Cat optional. (But look how imperious he is with his paw on that schedule!)