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.

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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.

Yoga: Leading with the Heart

I’ve practiced yoga for many years, starting in my 20s. My practice fell off in my 30s, around the time my health went wonky. For a long stretch, whenever I attended a class or practiced at home, the result was exhaustion and pain.

But in the last several years I’ve come back to yoga as I’ve rebuilt my health. Now I see my weekly Irvington Wellness Center class with Gaynell Collier-Magar as one of the pillars of my spiritual and physical self-care regimen.

Photo by Lyn Talley, via flickr Commons

Not a picture from our class. Photo by Lyn Talley, via flickr Commons

In Gaynell’s classes, you won’t find that punctilious solemnity that infects some yoga classes. She teaches with a lightness and authenticity that nourishes all comers. And she brings her whole self to teaching. I love that she doesn’t take herself too seriously. Nor does she shy away from the spiritual underpinnings of yogic practice.

Week after week, she nudges us to experience the support of unseen energies around us, to feel into our physical bodies and the air around them.

As we move into a standing posture, Gaynell might say something like, “Lead with your heart; allow your heart to move toward the wall…and now [a smile in her voice], loosening the grip with which you normally hold your life, raise your arms overhead.” Which makes us laugh in self-recognition while carefully forming our bodies into the shape she models.

Photo by Ariane, via flickr Commons

Not a picture of our class or anyone I know. Photo by Ariane, via flickr Commons.

Sometimes it takes stillness to open us to the love that’s all around us. It happened in last week’s class when I found myself holding a posture called the Half Pigeon. This pose has us fold the torso over a bent knee while stretched out face-down on the mat.

Gaynell queues up her play lists with care, and for this extended hold of Half Pigeon, she played a song celebrating the Divine Mother. The vocalist sang her tribute with piercing simplicity. With my forehead pressed to the mat, I felt tears well up from deep inside.

In previous years I might have cried in yoga classes out of grief, out of frustration, out of anger at my body (or at the instructor). Sometimes I cried from plain old weariness and physical pain.

But my heart is full now, and my body and spirit feel replete. My tears are not expressions of hurt. I weep because I feel steeped in love and gratitude.

Photo by Nicolas L., via flickr Commons

Photo by Nicolas L., via flickr Commons

Have you felt that—that opening in your heart center like a flower’s petals unfurling? I hope you have. I wish it for everyone.

I used to believe (or part of me shouted loudly enough to make me think I should believe) that an open heart was less essential than, say, large dramatic projects. It was the outer stuff that would change the world, not the inner.

Now I tend to think that this infusion of love is foundational to any external work, and that any worldchanging shift must manifest on both an internal and an external level.

Gaynell’s own writing will take a turn on this blog in coming weeks. Stay tuned to learn her perspective on how yoga supports resilient communities.