A small gift from the sea

It’s a long way — in both miles and mindset — from the silent morning sadhana at Kripalu to my parents’ house in Florida, where my family convenes each March for our sons’ spring break.  By the time I arrived last Saturday night, fresh from my month of yoga immersion, Steve and Jack were already here and in full vacation mode — tennis, hot tub, read, swim, more tennis.  Henry’s plane landed an hour after mine, and then, for a couple of perfect, too-short days, we were all here, making meals, reading our books, playing Scrabble, hanging out with my mom and dad, and catching up in person for the first time since early February.

As usual, we found ourselves crowded into a booth at Chili’s.  Henry ordered a (legal) Margarita; the kids (I still call them that), in deference to me, agreed to vegetarian nachos; and we began to wax nostalgic, recalling the days when the annual visit with the grandparents also included Steve’s folks, as well as stops at every mom-and-pop variety store (in search of the newest packs of baseball cards), shell collecting at the beach, Little Rascals video marathons, mini-golf, and Peanut Buster Parfaits at the DQ.  The memories gave rise to lots of laughs, and I said something about how great it felt, how special it was, to have us all gathered here together. The boys reminded me that I say that exact same thing every single time we are together.  I suppose I do.  These days, when the four of us actually land in the same place at the same time it does feel like an occasion — always too short, always bittersweet, always special.

Monday we drove Jack across the state to meet up with his school tennis team for a bit of pre-season training, and this morning we dropped Henry off at the airport at 6:30 am for his flight back to college.  It was still dark when we pulled up to the curb, the remnant half of the fattest, closest moon on record lingering in the sky.  I watched my older son push through the revolving door and disappear into the bright terminal and felt a similar revolving effect in my own stomach, as the easy togetherness of these last few days was suddenly displaced by a wave of sadness.  It still gets me, just how alone alone feels every time we say good-bye to our sons.

With one more day here before our own flight home, Steve and I drove down the empty highway and up and over the long bridge to Sanibel, where we used to spend at least part of each winter vacation when our boys were little.  It’s been years since we’ve been back, but as we walked along the familiar stretch of beach and watched a new generation of young sand-castle-builders hard at work, every step seemed to give rise to a memory.

I’ve just spent a month practicing being fully present, and yet strolling along the water’s edge this morning I seemed utterly incapable of simply being in the moment.  Sanderlings scurried along at our feet.  The sun rose higher in the sky, the water was perfect, the beach filling with families and sunbathers and shell collectors, all intent on milking their varied pleasures from the day.

And I found myself fighting back tears, trying way too hard to savor a lovely walk with my husband while, at the same time, overcome with a swirl of emotions — missing my sons, missing the life we used to lead together, missing their vanished childhoods and our own younger, more innocent parenting selves.  How clearly I remember every bathing suit they ever owned; the big, cheap beach towels with hoods in the corners that could completely envelop a small, shivering boy; the bright, indestructible toys we stored at my mom’s house and hauled out year after year; the small, irresistible  plastic shark Jack once “borrowed” from another little kid and failed to return, and his tearful confession at the end of the day when his guilty conscience got the better of him; the smell of suntan lotion slathered onto a small bony back; the taste of gritty cheese crackers and warm iced tea; the scrim of sand in the rental car; the bags of prized shells ripening and stinking in the back seat as we headed back down the causeway, windows open wide. . . .

Steve and I walked side by side, mostly in silence, for a mile or so, waves lapping at our feet, and then we turned around and made our way back.  I stooped and picked up a pale gray piece of a shell, broken, unidentifiable, but worn smooth as satin to the touch.  Somehow it seemed like the right one to slip into my pocket at the end of this less-than-wonderful morning, a battered fragment, far from perfect, yet weathered and beautiful in its own right.

There is an abbreviation known to everyone at Kripalu:  BRFWA.  It stands for Breathe. Relax. Feel. Watch. Allow.  In yoga class, this is a fine way to move into and out of poses, slowly and with awareness and compassion.  I think it is probably a pretty effective strategy for negotiating the inevitable ups and downs of everyday life as well.  I’ve been worried about how I can possibly incorporate all the learning of the last month back into my “real” life, how I can assimilate some of the changes I cultivated in class and turn them into new ways of being, even when I’m not on a yoga mat.  It was so easy to stay calm and centered while ensconced in “the bubble” of Kripalu, where all I had to do was show up and be myself in a room full of like-minded, equally dedicated souls.  But it’s so much more challenging to bring my “yoga self” back home and layer her onto my “mom self,” that self who seems at times to be comprised of equal parts of nostalgia for what’s over, worry about what might yet come to be, and yearning for the physical presence of grown children whose lives have (quite rightly) carried them away from home.

Breathe. Relax. Feel. Watch. Allow.  I wish I’d remembered these simple words at the beach this morning.  They might have given me a little more room to simply experience all my swirling feelings, without so much recrimination and self-judgment.  I might have allowed the sweet memories to wash through me rather than wishing for what can’t be.  I might have  allowed my tears to fall and then I might have taken a few deep breaths and allowed the sea air to dry my cheeks.  I might have held my husband’s hand and shared my feelings with him, and  allowed him to comfort me a little, instead of trudging along in silence as I did, convinced that I should somehow be doing a “better” job of walking on the beach.

So. Transformation doesn’t happen overnight after all, or even in a month.  And good-byes are always hard.  In the meantime, though, I will remind myself:  Breathe. Relax. Feel. Watch. Allow.


Teacher Training

“Love is not far away; it is as close as your heart.  You can find it there without walking a single step.” — Swami Kripalu

I wasn’t really sure what I hoped to learn during a month-long, 200-hour yoga teacher training at the Kripalu Center, nor was I sure, when I left home just four weeks ago, whether my fifty-two year old body was up to the challenges ahead.  Three to eight hours of yoga a day sounded like a lot.  Having gotten through four years of college without a room mate, I was about to bunk with five complete strangers in a small room — would I ever get a good night’s sleep?  I’d been warned by a recent graduate that the program was “intense,”  and I worried about what that might mean.  “Intense” as in physically demanding? I asked her.  “Intense” as in emotionally wrenching?  “Intense” because morning sadhana would begin at 6:30 am every single day, follwed by hours of lecture and posture clinics, another yoga class at 4:15, and a program that continued right through till 9 at night?

I noticed that my friend wasn’t really answering any of those questions to my satisfaction; her advice consisted of things like:  dress in layers for class, have a notebook for anatomy, bring flip flops for the shower, don’t make any plans for the so-called “day off,” as you’ll need that time to study and do laundry and catch up on the reading.  I wrote all of this down on a piece of paper, in the innocent hope that with the right packing list and a few words of wisdom from one who’d survived the course, I would be prepared.

Less than five minutes after my friend and I had parted on that winter afternoon that now feels like a lifetime ago, my cell phone rang.  “Just remember this,” she said when I answered, “it’s all about love.”

It will take a while, I think, for me to fully understand what the last month has meant, how this full immersion into a 200-hour certification program was in fact only superficially about learning the proper alignment for Warrior I pose and much more about what it means to bring one’s self into alignment — both on and off the yoga mat.  Of course, aligning the breath with the movement, or the knee with the ankle, is the easy part.  What the last month has taught me is that my real practice — of life, of yoga, of being human  — comes down to commitment.  It seems that growing up, even at my age, is all about making the commitment, again and again and again, to bring my outer persona into alignment with my inner truth, my words into alignment with my deeds, my thoughts into alignment with my actions, my deepest values into alignment with my smallest choices, my heart into alignment with my mind, until what I do and how I live is a reflection of who I truly am.  I’m beginning to think that what I’ve just experienced was in fact a profoundly transformational course in how to live more skillfully, very well disguised as a first-rate yoga teacher training.

It also happened to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for sixty-three randomly self-selected people of all ages and sizes and backgrounds to live and work and sleep and eat together every day for a month.  As a group, and individually, we had to make a decision to trust the process, and then, under the guidance of our two very amazing teachers, we  began to open up our hearts to one another, to open them just as wide as they would go.  The only thing we had to lose, it turned out, was our sense of separateness, our well-defended images of who we already were.  And what we had to gain, simply by being fully present, was a glimpse of our own true selves: lovable, vulnerable, imperfect, human.

There were many amazing moments.  Two days after a graduation ceremony that is already fading in my memory into a blur of tears, music, candlelight, ringing bells, rice and rose petals, whispered words of appreciation and encouragement from my classmates, an orange smear of  blessed oil placed reverently upon my forehead and a certificate of completion pressed into my hands, I remember one moment of the month above all others.

It was the second night, a candle-lit ceremony in which we students were to be presented with our own mala beads and then guided through our first extended exercise in meditation.  Our teacher placed the string of carved rosewood beads into my open palm and looked into my eyes as he said the Sanskrit words “Om Namo Bhagavade Vasudevayah,” which translates loosely into “thy will be done.”  Something deep inside me simply cracked open under that unwavering, unguarded, utterly loving gaze.  I looked back at him, my own eyes full of tears, and knew suddenly exactly what it was that I had come here to learn:  to be able to look into the eyes of another human being with such compassion, such acceptance, such unconditional tenderness and devotion.  I closed my fingers around the smooth strand of beads.  My education had begun.

First day of school

I have had it only a few times, a sudden sense of arriving at my own front door, of being home without even knowing that I’d been away.  I felt it twelve years ago, when I first unrolled a yoga mat in the back corner of the Baron Baptiste Power Yoga Studio in Cambridge.  Never mind that the room was heated to 102 degrees and I’d dressed, unwittingly, in sweatpants and a heavy, long-sleeved shirt.  Never mind that I couldn’t bend over and come any where close to touching my toes, that I had no idea what a downward-dog was, that my body felt so ungainly and awkward and disconnected from my brain (not to mention my heart) that I spent most of the class sweating desperately and watching everyone else flow through a series of poses that looked at once impossible, and impossibly lovely, to me.  I did what I could (which wasn’t much) and knew, the way we sometimes do know these things, that I’d finally arrived at a place I’d been seeking all my life.

There was a part of me even then that dreamed of full immersion.  Sometimes, I fantasized about what it might be like to study deeply, to practice for more than an hour and a half a couple of times a week, perhaps even to one day teach this practice I loved so much to others.  And always the ever-ready critic in my brain responded with all the reasons why that would never happen:  It was too late.  I already had a job, a well-paid sedentary one that required me to be at my desk every day. My kids and husband needed me. I’ve never been athletic and never will be. No matter how many years I spend on a yoga mat, I won’t have a “yoga body.” I can’t do a handstand. I’m too shy. Too uncoordinated.  Too old.

Twelve years later, and I’m even older than I was then.  But I’m also sensing that it’s time to attend more closely to my soul’s deepest longings, rather than to that inner voice that tells me what I’m not and can never be.  The truth is, my children no longer need me day in and day out, the way they once did, and my husband is quite able to take care of himself.  I don’t get paid to edit books on someone else’s schedule anymore.  And a yoga body is not the goal or the point of what I do on my yoga mat (although I certainly appreciate every little bit of core strength I manage to acquire).  The reasons I practice, the reasons I keep a mat spread on the floor between my kitchen and living room, have more to do with learning than with doing.  I practice yoga because I clench my jaw till my teeth ache, and tuning in to my breath is a gentle, necessary lesson in letting go.  I practice because so often I fail at being the wife, the mother, the friend I yearn to be, and learning to accept myself as I am on my yoga mat helps me accept who I am in the world.  I practice because I tend toward judgment, and yoga softens my rough edges.  I practice because I get so easily lost in worry or regret or plans that I miss the beauty right under my nose, and yoga is a lovely wake up call, my own daily reminder to be fully present in the moment–by-moment experience of being alive.

Early this morning, I threw all of my doubts and fears and nerves and excitement into the car, along with my yoga mat and duffel bag, and drove to the Kripalu Center in Western Massachusetts.  For the next month, I’ll live in a dorm room here with a bunch of other aspiring teachers and practice yoga two to eight hours a day.  All afternoon yesterday, as I vacuumed and dusted, watered plants and changed the beds, I fought back tears, wondering if I’d been nuts to think I could do this, and how I could possibly have imagined that being away from my home and family for such a long time was a good idea.   Every insecurity that’s ever plagued me came roaring back:  the embarrassment of showing up for the first day of first grade with a lunch box that was horribly wrong; third grade – the wrong stockings; eighth grade – the wrong friends; tenth grade – the wrong everything.  It’s been years since I’ve endured the butterflies in the stomach that always marked the first day of school —  but today is the first day of school all over again, and those butterflies knew just where to find me.

Funny, how I almost had myself convinced that I’d constructed a solid, reasonably confident  grown-up self —  and then all it took was the anticipation of a single step out of my  own well-established comfort zone to bring me right back in touch with the uncertain child I once was.

“Nervous?” my own son Jack asked me at breakfast this morning.  “Very,”  I admitted, “but in a good way.  And grateful, too.”  As a girl, I took refuge in books and the world of my imagination.  Since I didn’t quite fit in, I mostly opted out, choosing solitude and stories over socializing and physical activity, both of which were too scary to deal with.  So much easier to disappear than to negotiate the complicated social hierarchy of my more with-it peers or to risk embarrassment in gym class.  I was the master of the independent study, the sick note, the excused absence.  Given that I also managed to get through four years of college without spending a single night with a room mate, setting foot in the gym, or donning a pair of sneakers, what I’m about to do now does seem a little radical. Or, maybe I’m just finally ready to show up – not only on my yoga mat, not only for my family and my friends, but also for the beautiful, challenging privilege of finding out who I am, who I might, even yet, turn out to be.

(Internet is limited at Kripalu, and my schedule these next four weeks will be intense.  I’m a rusty student, with a fat textbook to read and lots of homework to do.  So. . .while I hope to continue with a weekly blog post, I may be a little less connected here so that I can be a little more connected with matters of breath, spirit, and awareness. )

“You have what I want.”

Every morning, I come downstairs and do the same thing: look out the window and greet the mountains, put on a pot of coffee, flip open my laptop, check the weather, scan my email.

The first letter I see today is from a reader, a mother who had written me some months ago with what I considered the highest of praise: she called my books “yoga for the brain.”  Of course I’m delighted to find her name in my in-box again.

“I have a personal question for you,” Sarah’s note begins,  “and please feel free not to answer it.”  I read on, intrigued.  “If I have a bad parenting day,” she continues, “or if I’m stuck in a rut, I pick up one of your books and it calms my spirit. . . . Your words exude a deep sense of calmness, and a connection to your spirit.  Where the heck do you get that from?  Really, I want to know.”   Her letter ends with words that bring me up short:  “I just feel like you have what I WANT.”

Someone out there wants what I have?  How strange to think that, while I’m struggling along here, feeling neither wise nor terribly calm, and certainly not very sure of myself, someone else seems to think that I have things all figured out and squared away.

The truth is, I’ve spent most of January sitting in a chair, trying in fits and starts to write a new book proposal and judging every paragraph.  I spend an hour on a sentence, then throw it away, certain it’s not worth reading, wondering why my writer friends seem capable of knocking out great stuff without breaking a sweat while I agonize over every word.  I look around the house at all the tasks that are undone: the pile of stuff on my desk that I promised to plow through before the end of the month; the exhausted paperwhites, deep in their post-holiday forward bends, dropping petals all over the floor (way past time to throw them away and get the vacuum out!); the blinking light on the piano pulsing “tune me”; the pile of laundry in the basket, waiting to be folded. I think of the friends I’ve been meaning to call, but haven’t, because I’ve been glued to my desk, feeling the pressure of my own self-imposed deadline.

I think of the painful conversation I had the other night with my husband, his admission that he feels a little lonely these days even when he’s with me;  his accusation that I’ve been oblivious for weeks, so focused on my work that I seem to have checked out of my life.   Each day of this cold, snowy month, my neighbor Debbie has come by my house, quietly doing one good deed after another:  replenishing my birdseed supply, taking Gracie for a walk, leaving me her copy of Yoga Journal, even hauling the snowblower out of the garage and doing our walkways after the last storm.  I keep meaning to write her a thank you note, to invite her out for blueberry pancakes at our favorite cafe.  But I haven’t done either.

All these lapses, my own failures of presence and attention, leap to mind as I read Sarah’s  letter.  If only she knew how easily I lose sight of the beauty of the world.  How easily I wander off track, get lost, and flail about, rather than staying balanced in my own quiet center. If only she knew how overwhelmed I often feel myself.

I gulp down a bowl of cereal and head downtown to yoga class. Alexandra greets every one of us by name as we enter the room and roll out our mats.  Her humor, her grace, her presence never fail to lift my spirits. Today, I’m so soothed by her quiet way, by her stillness leavened with a kind of inner light, that I find myself thinking, “Well, I want what SHE has.”

We began in a reclined hero pose.  Long experience has taught me to move into this one slowly, and with care.  So, while my classmates plop their butts down easily between their spread calves and lay back, I futz around: a block under my rear end, a bolster beneath my back, a slow progression through my tight hips and thighs and calves, to a supine position.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be flexible enough to do this pose without props; what I have learned, though, is that if I’m patient with myself, if I take it slow and breathe my way down on to my back, I’ll be ok.

And so, I set up my little arrangement — block, bolster, blanket — and ease myself toward the floor.  One breath, two.  Allowing rather than doing.  Letting go rather than holding on.  Laying there, listening to Alexandra’s quiet instructions, I feel something I’ve been holding on to for days begin to release.

Why have I been making this all so hard?  For weeks I’ve been muscling my way into Writer Pose, trying to force words onto paper, while ignoring the protests of my spirit.  And what do I have to show for it?  A very few pages wrought at considerable expense — I’m tired, frustrated, insecure, behind in everything, and on top of all that, I’ve hurt my husband’s feelings by being so wrapped up in my own.

No wonder Sarah’s letter makes me feel  uncomfortable. What I have, after all, is nothing special.  In fact, I know all too well the trap of assuming that what’s hard for me is easy for everyone else, whether it’s writing an essay or flowing through a vinyassa in yoga class.  I look around the room — at my lovely teacher in her self-contained wisdom, at the young women whose limbs are as flexible as pipe cleaners, at the friend who has just lost fifteen pounds and looks great — and recognize a familiar old emotion in myself.  Inadequacy.  The sense that who I am, what I’m capable of, is never quite enough.

And yet, lying in my fully supported hero pose, I know that my challenge in this moment is not to get my bottom onto the floor, but to quiet the noisy buzzing in my mind and tune in to my own body instead, to trust that who I am really is ok, and that, contrary to that negative, nattering voice in my head, I already have everything I need — to do my version of hero pose, to write my next book, to live my own good life.

“Be content with what you have,” wrote Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, “rejoice in the way things are. When you realize nothing is lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” The quiet center, the calm place I seek — it has been right here all along.   I can tie myself up in emotional knots, trying to write from sheer force of will, judging myself for what I haven’t done, comparing myself to others and coming up lacking every time.  Or I can ease back into my life the way I’ve finally learned to ease my middle-aged body into this most challenging yoga pose: by offering myself the kind of compassionate acceptance I so easily extend to everyone else.

Perhaps the only way to achieve wholeness is to embrace our own fragility, to acknowledge our weaknesses and broken parts, and to minister to those parts with tenderness.  And perhaps our real work as humans is not to become more like someone else, not to look at what another person seems to have, and try to figure out how to get it for ourselves — but rather to discover that which is unique and precious to us, and to lovingly attend to that.

And how lucky we are, to have the support of the universe as we embark on this transformative work of caring for our own souls:  books to inspire us on our journeys, role models who can point the way, poems that give voice to the words in our own hearts, teachers willing to meet us where we are, friends who appear at our sides offering encouragement and companionship, loved ones who patiently wait for us to look up and to remember that we are loved.

It is, in fact, a great honor to know that something I’ve written has shone a light on someone else’s path.  What I want, what we all want, is to feel that our gifts, whatever they are, have been of some use.  Our lives become meaningful in service to others.  First though, we must be able to see, and to honor, the light within ourselves.  Perhaps today, as I do the dishes, fold that laundry, sit at my desk waiting for words to come and then, later, reach out over dinner to take my husband’s hand, I’ll remember that nothing is lacking, that the whole world already belongs to me, if I can simply allow myself to receive it.


“What are you thinking?” I asked Henry.

We were taking a last hike before he heads back to college tomorrow, climbing up the back side of North Pack on a perfect early autumn morning.

“Oh, nothing much,” was his reply.  “Sometimes it’s nice to just walk in the woods and not think about anything at all.”

My own mind, of course, was racing down the trail ahead of my feet, tumbling into the afternoon, considering what we would do for the rest of the day, what I should make for dinner, how we could make this last weekend of family togetherness feel special.

“Henry is already a yogi,” my yoga teacher said to me five or six years ago when she first met him.  He had never done a downward dog; what she meant is that he is possessed of — was perhaps born with — the calm, the kind of inner quiet, that most of us spend years, and lots of time and energy, trying to achieve.  When he walks in the woods, he just walks in the woods.  Yesterday, as sunlight filtered through the trees and summer drew to a close, his companionable silence was the gentle reminder I needed to do the same.  To let the thoughts and plans and voices in my head fall silent for a while, and to be fully present right where I was instead, taking a hike with my son.

His plane leaves at 6:30 tomorrow morning.  As I type these words, he’s upstairs, packing the final load of his clean laundry into his suitcase. Tonight, we’ll have an early meal, our last as a family til Christmas time. We’ll say what we’re feeling grateful for, chat at the table for a while, head to bed by ten.  And in the darkness of dawn I’ll hug him one last time and send him back into his other life.  The good-byes are hard, still.  So I’m grateful for right now, for every moment that we are here under this roof together.  And I’m taking a cue from my son — not thinking about it all too much,  just paying attention.