Adventures in Ayurveda

As I have mentioned on here a bit, I have been working for the past 5 months or so with an Ayurvedic doctor here in Brisbane, who also happens to be a friend and amazing yoga teacher.  I went to a workshop she put on months ago, and was inspired to learn more about ayurveda and how it could help me improve my own health and wellness.

It’s been an adventure delving into this.  First, I learned about my dosha, which in ayurveda means your constitution. There are three; kapha, pitta, and vatta.  They all have very specific qualities that make them unique and reflect elements of the natural world like fire, water, air, and earth.  The way these elements interact together helps to explain the way your body and mind work; your energy levels, your mindset, and many elements of your physical and mental health. Most people are a mix of all three doshas – often the way the three interact will change with the seasons.  But each person has their own unique mix, which is something you’re born with and can’t really change.  You can, however, manage the way the doshas work within your body to attempt to achieve balance and improve your health.

In my case, I didn’t come to Heidi, my doctor, with any specific health issues.  I basically had a host of small things that had bothered me for a long time.  I could hardly eat a meal without being doubled over in stomach pain shortly thereafter.  I had skin rashes, inflammation, and my mind often felt foggy and tired.  I was also extremely moody.  But I took all of these things to be normal – and assumed that most people dealt with the same health frustrations.   I just wanted to see if ayurveda could offer me an alternative to it, and after hearing Heidi talk about it, I thought it might .

When Heidi sat down with me, we had a talk. A serious talk. I walked away feeling like I had bared my soul.  She knew about my mental state, the way I felt about my friends and family and their health issues, my relationships, my stressors, my libido, my sweat, my exercise habits, and every last details about my excrement.  She looked at my tongue and drew pictures of it, and she looked into my eyes and furrowed her brow.  She looked at my fingernails and my skin, and by the time I was done I felt there was nothing Heidi didn’t know about me (and she probably knew things even I didn’t).  It was all a bit intrusive at first, but as we went on I could help but wonder why no doctor had ever asked me some of these questions.

I learned from her, that I’m a pitta.  A pitta pitta.  Where most people are more of a mix of three, I’m pretty much all pitta.  In short, that means I have a fiery nature, a strong metabolism, a strong desire to work and stay busy, and I’m prone to skin and stomach issues.   There is a LOT more to that – but that’s the quick and dirty.  It felt oddly validating to be deemed super pitta.  I’ve been told on more than one occasion, by more than one person, that I am the most intense person they know – which I have never fully understood.  But, Heidi saw it too in my “crazy eyes”, so I’m just accepting it as fact.  I’m intense, apparently.

So, to help balance out the pitta in me and bring me to a more healthful place, I have been going heavy on bitter foods like rocket, kale, broccoli, pomegranate, berries, and other “cooling” things like coconut water, coriander and fennel.  I’m laying off some of my favorite foods like tomatoes, anything salty, all nightshades, and sour things like lemons and oranges.   I also take all sorts of tinctures (not the sketchy type…) and potions.   I meditate and do breathing exercises.  I feel like a witch.  And, I like it.

The end of summer here in Australia is a hot, and extremely wet time of year.  It’s a hard time to be a pitta.  Things go all out of whack – and my body has.   I got a serious infection which I tried to treat with ayurveda – and which was working pretty well until guests arrived, I went traveling, and drank a lot for my birthday (which I do not regret!).  The inability to keep a routine and follow the rules I needed to follow to heal myself totally backfired on me.  I ended up in a lot of pain, upset with myself for failing ayurveda, and in a doctor’s office getting myself some antibiotics – which I try to avoid like the plague.   I am wiped out from battling nasties for weeks now, both with ayurveda and with western meds.

But despite that, I’m pretty hooked on the benefits of ayurveda,  It’s amazing to recognize that by observing my body more closely and recognizing what my symptoms mean, I can figure out how to be healthier and happier by making dietary adjustments.  I don’t have pain after my meals now, because I have worked on cultivating the right flora in my digestive tract.  That has helped my moods (because eating without pain is always a good thing!).  My PMS is less intense, my temper flares less easily, and I don’t feel that inner sense of hardness that I did for so long, which made it hard for me to cultivate empathy for other people.   I feel (more) comfortable being vulnerable. My skin has cleared up so I barely have a hint of skin rash or inflammation.  And I wake up feeling refreshed and ready to work rather than groggy all day and alert in the evening when I want to sleep.  My whole life seems to make more sense and feel more aligned with what is healthy and right.

I know some people might think ayurveda is a bit wacky and out there, but to me you simply cannot argue with results.  I feel amazing. And even though I have been unwell recently (during a hard wet season with LOTS of rain, heat, and humidity – all which really throw off my dosha), I know that I am on a course towards much better health than I have had ever before.  It feels so, so, good.

I want to encourage everyone out there to learn more about ayurveda and improving your health in a natural, diet-based way – because health is so much more than the absence of disease.  The goal is feeling vibrant, alert, and whole.  And I’m finally feeling that way!

The Edge

My blogging here, began with a goal to explore my relationships and emotions through my experiences in the natural world; a fitting lens through which to gaze, as it so markedly shapes my outlook.  But I’ve struggled with it!

Oddly, I have found that though my life in Brisbane takes place outside proportionately more than my life most other places has, I feel a shortage of reflective time to think on the world I move through each day. I’ve suffered a bit of writer’s block in the last few months. I’m not sure if the block was due to lack of time, lack of inward reflection, or the simple fact that I’m just happy.

I once interned with a former stand-up comedian during college.  When I asked him why he no longer did stand-up, he told me it was because he was finally happy.  I wondered at first if he was joking – an ironic answer to make me laugh and maybe see if he still had it – but he wasn’t.

Perhaps the creative muse lives, for many of us, in the seat of discontent.  I know mine has at times.  Why do people ponder their lives, their partners, their direction, if not a gnawing seed of unsettledness?  And isn’t that pondering at the root of creativity?  It seems to me to be.  But then I have been known to paint beautiful things only to cover them in black paint because I prefered its texture.  I’m a weirdo and it’s possible I have a dysfunctional muse.

That being said, I felt inspiration to write for the first time in months last weekend – and it came from something other than discontent.  I took my sisters up to northern Queensland to the city of Cairns for a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef and to see the Daintree forest.  We spent the day on a small sailboat and swam with some beautiful reef sharks and sea turtles.  It was a bit choppy so the water wasn’t perfect, but I love the ocean and the chance to swim with creatures that never cross my path for want of feet.  It calms me to undulate with the movements of the water around me and offer myself up to a universe where I’m at the mercy of so many things beyond my control.  It seems to appropriately align the world – at least to my view.  I could spend my life in the water without complaint.

We had motored out to the reef in the morning, but as the afternoon drew to a close we clambered back into the boat and put it under sail for the ride home.  Now, I haven’t done a lot of sailing, but I am not a total novice either.  I raced a legitimate regatta on Lake Michigan once, and I had the bruises to show for it for weeks. After last weekend though, I wish it was a bigger part of my life because when the wind bowed the sails, and our masts leaned against its force I felt unchained.  My hips rolled with the boat into the swells and my body let go in a way I have felt in only a few other contexts; tearing down a powder run, riding my bike fast down the mountains of Colorado, and paddling big waves in a canoe.

On the Ocean Free

Maybe it’s the speed or the wind in my face that lights me up, but the feeling is as if my body is filling up with honey; pure bliss seeping through me with slow, gooey, goodness.  I say honey both for the fact that it feels like it creeps out from my core to my fingers with this languid viscousness that quells any mental chatter.  And because it sticks. You can call the feeling up after the fact and bask in the glow of it.  You’re in the right place, you’re flying,  you’re not scared, you’re on the edge – and loving it. I’ve heard the feeling referred to as flow.

It’s in those moments that I feel like a conduit between the world below me and something bigger. At those moments I’ve tapped into the source.  It’s a high like no other.

Lately I’ve been dancing with the edge of this sensation on a near-daily basis. I wish I could share it with the people around me because it feels so damn good.  I think I’ve been able to access it through a combination of a lot of yoga and the work I’ve been doing with my friend and ayurvedic doctor who is helping me to work with my diet to regulate my inflammation and moods.  I don’t really know what is happening, but I’m sticking by it.  I feel too good not to.

I have a sense of mental calm that I’ve never really experienced in any sort of sustained way before.  It’s like I’m accessing a better version of me, and one that I was keeping under wraps for a long, long time.  I realize I sound like a new age hippy and I don’t mind if you laugh at me for this post. Whatever. I will do weird breathing exercises and eat dirt twice a day if I can continue to feel awesome indefinitely.

But seriously, I feel so good that I worry I may become a happy jerk. You know the type. The person whose rose-colored glasses make you want to shoot them?  I’ve encountered the type before and I have come close to pulling the trigger on them.  I mean, who do they think they are with their preachy radiance and tranquility?

Sadly, I think I pulled a happy jerk move just recently trying to share my experience with someone who wasn’t open to it for various reasons.  Long story.  Needless to say, I think it exhibited a lack of compassion on my part, and I need to watch my predisposition to be the uncompassionate happy jerk.

I don’t know. In times of great joy I think it’s worthwhile to remind yourself of the fleetingness of the feelings we experience. Which is, I guess , why it’s so tempting to overshare one’s jubilance.  I’m going to work on just observing the feelings and being happy with the little slice of world before me.  Like sadness, these feelings are just waves we each ride.  Take it as long as you can ride it and hope more comes your way.  I’m riding this wave for all that I can.   I feel the wind in my hair and the sun on my skin, and goddamn, it’s amazing.

(P.S. I realize that in the very act of posting this I may be jinxing this.  But it’s still worth sharing.)

Morning musings

I have been on a bit of a journey lately.  It’d be difficult for me to describe the path I’m taking, but I can offer vignettes.  I’ve meandered through vegetable gardens (three), discovered a body (mine) capable of doing things I never expected, fallen head over heels in love (again), and begun drinking strange potions that taste unpleasant.   How and why these things are strung together in my life as they are, in the space and time they are, seems a bit unclear.  The thread uniting all of them charts a circuitous path through my past and my future, and I’m pretty sure it doubles back on itself and may be tied in knots along the way.

It all begins with something that happened about a year ago while I was in Nicaragua with R.  We had a fight, as couples do.  But this one was less of an argument and more of a reckoning, on both our parts, that we were making huge life changes – together – and we needed to figure out how to make it all work.  Together.  Now, R, being the intelligent and compassionate guy that he is, didn’t really need this reckoning.  The one who needed it was me.  I needed to be reminded that I had to really take pride in, be happy with, and love myself in order to be present and active in our relationship. Something that, at the time, I was not really doing.

So, over the last year I have worked hard on making myself happy. I’ve been examining my motives, and analyzing when and why I sometimes feel discontent. It’s been a bit trying to take a fine-toothed comb to my intention, and asking whether my actions are rooted in desire, obligation, competitiveness, or perhaps a bit of each.  It’s been a long-overdue process of claiming ownership over my actions and my life in a way that I had never done before.

One thing that has been a valuable tool for me on this path has been yoga.  I’ve written about it to a certain degree here, but it can be a hard thing to write about because to me yoga is very emotionally laden.  It’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to really understand the mind-body connection that is intrinsic to yoga; that yoga is about much more than achieving a pose. But, with time, and probably through confronting heartache and pain during my practice, I’ve begun to recognize how much emotional impact the physicality of yoga has on me. With time I have learned to recognize why the emphasis is  in process, form, and patience.  I also realize now how the powerful connection between our minds and our bodies can be an amazingly transformative tool.

So, yesterday after a hard practice based in the theme of “letting go,” I lay on the floor of Shri during savasana and listened achingly as the girl beside me sniffled quietly before choking back a loud, painful sob.  I felt for her. I wanted to reach out to her and let her know things would be okay.  I’ve been in her place– during savasana with tears pooling in my ears as I laid on my back, or feeling emotions rise up during a long hard run that leave me doubled over. Crying.

I may be a particularly sensitive person, or I may not.  I’m not entirely sure.  But I know that at times life can really beat you down.  It can be relentless. But, in my experience, from those depths it’s sometimes possible to see just how valuable your connections to people are, and to level with your own failings and weaknesses.  One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, says of this low place:  “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.  It took me years to see that this too, was a gift.”

I have lately felt like a teacher in the sense that I feel I have something to share with those around me traveling the path of sadness.  Some of the people closest to my heart are facing their own heartbreaks – which inevitably leads to the soul-searching moments, the doubled-over crying, and the confrontation with real, agonizingly stark grief.  I feel like I have walked through that fire and reached the other side on my own personal path.

I guess that’s probably why on Monday, when I went for my first ever Ayurvedic consultation, I wasn’t surprised to have my doctor look into my eyes, deeply furrow her brow and note gravely, that I have DEEP stress lines in my eyes.  But, she went on to say that I had stress lines in both eyes, meaning that I had carried significant stress in my body for quite some time.  The good news was that in my right eye, which indicates my current state, she could see that I was healing.

It’s funny to say I am healing, when I honestly can’t quite describe my illness.  All I know is that for a long time I wasn’t happy.  I can’t say why, exactly.  Except perhaps that I lived with a pervasive sense of uncertainty.  I feared missing something, the future, an unexpected change that would dash my hopes and dreams.  I honestly, am not sure what I feared – probably simply failing at being the person I wanted to be.

Have you ever see Take This Waltz?  It examines this dilemma pretty well, in my opinion.  Admittedly, I’m mildly obsessed with this movie, but it’s worth taking a moment here and watching the trailer to look at the pretty people.

The end run is, I’ve come to a place where I am not scared.  I am content.  Each morning when I wake up an wander my three gardens turning on hoses, pulling out weeds, and eyeing the growth I see, I know I am doing it from a place of love.  Each time I soften my shoulders and feel that I no longer have that sticky spot in my back hindering my mobility, I know it’s a product of the work I’ve done.  And each time I see R smile, I know he knows.  He knows that I have grown.  He’s seen how I have changed.  He knows his role in it, and he knows my immense gratitude for his help and guidance through some confusing times.

I guess the point I’m trying to make through all this rambling is that lately I’ve been witness to a fair bit of loss and sadness.  It’s served to shine a light on my own experience of grief, and made me aware of how far I’ve come beyond it.  My immediate loss and then my general sadness were once both so deeply entrenched in my life that it was hard for me to finally let them go because they had come to define a piece of me.  But with time, love, and lots of hard work I think I can say that I have put away the pieces of my past sadness that once defined me.  They can sit on a shelf in my past, reminding me of my path, but today I am going to tend to my squash, and my life, with the dedication of someone who has worked for what she has and is grateful for it.

Where are my pants?

They’re in my drawer.  Where they might stay for the next 6-months. Summer is here. The sun is shining by 5 am again. The horrific Queensland birds are calling.  Magpies are in full kill-all-moving-things mode.  Make way, because the season of extremely short shorts is upon us. Hello, Queensland in all your uncovered glory! I had missed the overexposed upper thighs and barely concealed…anything. But, hey it’s already almost too hot to wear pants and it’s September. So, I’m not wearing pants. And, I won’t hold anyone else to that obscene standard either.

Look at me, complaining about the heat of summer, only a couple short weeks after complaining of the cold of winter.  I can barely keep up with the seasons, but I ate a mango today that almost melted me, it was so sweet and juicy. Summer is here! Mangos are juicy, skin is exposed and gleaming, the air feels sensual – especially when I ride my bike quickly to avoid having my eyes pecked out by magpies.

I don’t have a theme in mind for today, but let’s roll with it and see where it takes us. I was feeling a little guilty for not posting anything for a few weeks and so I’m writing off the cuff; we’re flying by the seat of our non-existent pants with this one, friends.

On to real life – where I am forced to wear pants.

Today, I’m on day 18 of my 30-day yoga challenge, and also 20ish days into eating paleo. I probably would have been wise to do these little experiments in health independent of each other, but I just don’t have the time to wait, so here we are, doing king pigeon and eating steak. (I actually cooked my first steak this week and I will not lie, Rick makes a much better steak than me and I wish he would come back from Broome.)

Regarding this experiment in cave man eating and yogaing, I have to begin by saying that I took a 3-hour nap yesterday afternoon, and just awoke from sleeping another 9 hours and I am not quite awake, even now. I am wiped out in a way that leads me to believe that something big is happening in my body – or this whole plan is a horrific failure. But, my yoga seems to reflect that change positively, so I’m a happy, exhausted camper.

In the last week I have reached new thresholds in poses that always challenged me, and tried some new things. I can feel real changes in my hips and lower back and hamstrings – places I’ve been historically tight. In fact, yesterday my teacher used me for demonstration purposes for a one-legged king pigeon. (I was the counter example to a girl named Jade who, it appears, has no bones in her body. She slips into one-legged king pigeon like she’s sitting in a chair.)  Me? I don’t slip into anything related to pigeon. I work and breathe, and breathe and attempt to soften, and a wince, and lose my balance and sometimes fall over. However, with 18 days of unmitigated yoga breathing under my belt, apparently I’ve softened a bit. I won’t say my one-legged king pigeon was perfect – far from it, but I actually touched my foot with both hands and didn’t fall over. It was a big deal for me – the pressure of having 30 people watch me do it might have helped. For those who don’t know this pose, here’s a photo.

Anyway, without going into too much detail of the ways my body is changing through yoga, I can say it’s good. There are places  that I never even recognized as being tight, that I may have not even known I could loosen, which are slowly awakening and making their presence known. My alignment is improving much the way it did in college when I got into Pilates for a bit. Overall, it’s a good thing, but sometimes I am pretty sore. It’s a good time for Rick to be in the field for nearly two weeks because I would be asking for a lot of back rubs if he were here.

I have to say that doing this 30-day challenge is harder than I expected. It’s like running in the sense that I’ve always done yoga for the mental and physical enjoyment of it, not because I had set a goal related to it.   This made it MY time to enjoy and decompress. But, much like running, once a goal has been attached to it, it becomes both a blessing and an obligation to go to yoga, and I think it’s harder to work with intention under those circumstances. For the first time in my life I have caught myself glancing at my watch during class, wondering how much longer it will go. I am just very tired. And, I see that exhaustion mirrored on the faces of the other 30-day challengers. But we’re truckin’ along.

Overall, the benefits far outweigh my tiredness or my worries about my intention being lost. My body feels strong, balanced, and good in a way that I don’t get with running. And the knee problems that have been plaguing me of late are slowly getting better. I can feel flexibility and increased strength through my left hip and knee, whereas just a month ago I could barely kneel on it because it was so sensitive and inflamed. Obviously this is a positive development, and with my grandpa getting his knee replaced in just a few weeks and lecturing me on why I need to stop running, it seems timely that I’ve started down this yoga path with a more dedicated focus now.

So, for the second half of my 30-days of experiments on myself, I am eating paleo. For those who aren’t familiar with paleo, it’s a way of eating that attempts to replicate what humans have historically eaten throughout our development. It’s become very trendy for people doing things like Cross Fit or other kinds of fitness stuff, and also among those with food sensitivities. It involves cutting grains, processed/refined sugars, dairy, and legumes out of your diet, leaving you with basic cave man foods like nuts, veggies, and meat. For me, the food sensitivity thing is really why I’m doing paleo. I have always had a sensitive stomach, and as I’ve gotten older I have suffered increasingly annoying skin issues like sun rashes, blistering, and heightened skin sensitivity. I also have a thyroid disorder, which is often related to autoimmune disease. Many doctors have linked these together in passing, but none has ever actually recommended I do anything to understand or explain how they are related.

So, linking my own symptoms with family history that includes lupus, thyroid, and some mood disorders (which all show strong autoimmune-related dietary connections), I have increasingly begun to believe that what I eat really matters to my health and well-being. This is an interesting turn of fate as my diet for the last 10-years or so was significantly dictated not by what was best for me, but what I thought was best for the world. So, I was a vegetarian, pescatarian, and intermittently a carnivore, but primarily I was a vegetarian for the fact that I didn’t like the way industrial meat was raised and the environmental effects of industrial agriculture. I have to admit that I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought, beyond the fact that I didn’t eat meat. I never took too seriously the likelihood of creating any kinds of nutritional deficits because I ate healthy, vitamin-rich foods.

Well, fast forward to two months ago when I learned I was severely anemic, low in zinc, low in about 4 other important things, and just basically poorly nourished. Here I was thinking I was in good shape after running my third marathon, and I learn that I am actually not in good shape. In fact, I am unhealthy. I am short on nearly everything that one can get by eating meats. Holy hell!

So, I decided to try paleo. I hadn’t ever done a full exclusionary diet to test my food sensitivities and I needed to eat meat – so I’m killing two birds with one stone.

And, I think I am slaughtering these birds. I feel amazing. There are major differences in my skin and how it looks and feels. It is really soft to the touch now, where it has always been dry. I also feel like it’s less prone to inflammation than just a few weeks ago. Also, I wake up in the mornings without feeling groggy. I get out of bed and function like normal person. And my stomach doesn’t get upset the way it used to. It is mind-blowing. I didn’t expect that the results of changing my diet would be so apparent after such a short time. It floors me.

Now admittedly, I can’t tell you that my skin is healthier because I am doing paleo, because it might be from doing so many inversions at yoga. But, either way, I feel really good. So, I guess to close, my life at the moment feels good. Yoga is mildly addictive, despite the fact that it tires me out. Eating paleo is a bit sad, due to the whole cheese prohibition thing, but it’s worth it because I feel really healthy this way. And, oh yes! Rick’s family and mine are coming to visit in November! So, we have some serious beach time ahead, and probably some reef time as well. I’m already chomping at the bit.

Yoga Aid 2012: The Kirtan

All around me spandex-clad, sun-kissed ladies and gentlemen bounce rhythmically to the pervasive drumbeat.   In the waning afternoon light, after 3 hours of yoga, the kirtan’s slowly rising thunder is reaching a crescendo.   Almost as though in a trance, seemingly normal, English-speaking adults are bouncing, holding hands, and singing together “Haribo ita gore, ita gore haribo“, calling and repeating with the small band on stage and the ladies leading the meditation.  If one were to turn off the sound, the whole scene could easily be transposed from a rollicking set at a Yonder Mountain String Band show.  Only in this scene, there is no alcohol or goo balls or any other plausible excuse for dancing around as though we’re all possessed.  Nothing, that is, but the spirit of the kirtan on a sunny afternoon, a dancing and chanting ecstatic meditation.

In the midst of the throbbing mass, with the afternoon’s rays just cresting the trees to shine on our faces, I almost feel as though I’m on drugs.  The drumbeat and the powerful voices around me, calling and repeating a simple phrase seems to be doing something to me that I really can’t explain.  I didn’t realize this was part of the whole experience, and I don’t feel prepared for the rush of emotions. But, feeling open, and energized in a way that only 3 hours of yoga in the afternoon sun can do, I don’t have the will to fight my super ego’s voice reminding me that it’s 4 in the afternoon, I’m sober, and this whole things is a bit weird.

In fact, I’m literally brimming over with happiness.  As I look around me people are shining with joy, holding hands, and singing together.   It’s child-like and ecstatic l in a way that I haven’t felt in years.  And I feel happy watching this group rise with the music and dance with such freedom of expression.  I want to feel that too, yet something terrifying is happening in my body.  Each time I open my mouth to chant, my voice comes out in barely a whisper, as though any further expression would pierce through me and I would crack down the center and flood outwards.  A knot rises up in my throat and pressure pushes outward from behind my face. A single tear rolls down my right cheek.  I wonder whether to wipe it off as the man behind me grabs my left hand and begins to pull me toward the stage.  The music keeps getting louder, and the swell of people around me bounces and dances more enthusiastically – clapping and spinning.

As I run towards the stage and then back, holding the hand of a man with gold teeth and a shirt that proclaims him a member of the Australian School of Meditation and Yoga, I feel disembodied.  Who am I and what am I doing?  Yet, I feel the grip of my super ego losing strength, and a knot again rises in my throat and threatens to break me open and flood the scene with something – tears, light, joy, dancing?  I’m not really sure.  All I know is that I am scared of it actually making its way out.  I work hard to suppress the rush of emotion that wells up each time I scan the crowd, and instead I focus on the stage.  But there, a beautiful woman stands, singing the words in a voice deep and strong.  She jumps and spins and dances, and again the knot is rising.

Unable to handle the constant effort of holding back whatever is threatening to break me open, I look up at the sky as I dance, deeply exhaling.  This pause restores me and temporarily releases the pressure of my internal waters on my eyelids and cheeks.

But finally, seeing a little girl running through the group to her mom, and leaping into her arms as she dances, I am spent.   Tears rolls from my eyes and I know not where to look or how to appear when I’m looked at.  So I smile.  I let the warmth and salt trickle down the sides of my neck and pool in the hollows above my collarbones, feeling cool as the afternoon breeze kisses the streams.  With my internal pressure gauge finally returning to normal, I am again able to sing with a full voice.  I look around the scene feeling a deep peace.

I’ve never been through a full kirtan before.  Never experienced that rise of emotion and release.  I think I needed it.  My soul needed it.  Perhaps I hadn’t realized how much I was standing in the way of my own joy, until it literally welled out of me against my will to the rhythm of bare feet on the earth, warm sun in my hair, hands holding mine, and untempered voices bolstering my heart and giving it strength to let go.

Soften Your Heart – Alchemy and Yoga

I am looking at my feet.  I am in downward dog.  My calves are straining and my hamstrings are too tight and my hips aren’t open.  I am trying to will my hamstrings into giving me just a little more, but they aren’t cooperating.  My yoga teacher, Julie, places her hand at my back and encourages me to soften my focus and “soften my heart,”  so I immediately drop my chest towards the floor as much as possible, which is all wrong. “Keep your armpits lifted” she says.  I try doing that but I am not even sure what it means when I’m upside down.  I am failing to follow instructions.  I realize the more guidance she gives me, the farther I am from doing it right.  I am awkwardly making this “resting pose” quite difficult.  Everything feels wrong.

Later in class (mind you this is a class of about 4 people who are mostly yoga devotees or instructors) we are doing seated poses–forward folds over our outstretched legs.  These never go well for me.  As I struggle to soften and lead with my heart while reaching my feet, the rest of the class has their heads resting comfortably on their shins, smiling blissfully.  I look at Julie over everyone else’s shoulders, and she laughs at me.  Well, more with me, because I am laughing too.  I am so tight!  Despite years of yoga, my hips aren’t “open” and when you ask me to do a pose that requires any flexibility in my hamstrings I look like a beginner.  Julie warmly suggests we not call it “tight,” we’ll call it “strong.”  She points to a spot on my upper back just behind my heart.  “This is your problem spot” she declares.  Her compassion is kind, and her read on me, good.  Both physically and emotionally, softening my heart is the ongoing challenge I face.

In yoga you hear the phrases “soften your heart” and “melt your heart” thrown around with such abandon that they lose some of their meaning.  If one looks at the etymologies of the words they ask a few things: Physically, the phrase asks us to allow the tension to release from the chest and upper back so that it can flow into poses–like downward dog.  But there’s more to it, to melt means, literally, to soften and to become fluid–to pass from one state to another.  To change your chemical structure.  These teachers are asking us for alchemy.

It’s a pretty big request, actually.

Not to get too esoteric here, but how can one not get a bit philosophical on this stuff?  To me, yoga isn’t about loosening my hamstrings, it’s about exploring the deeper meanings.  Why are my hamstrings so tight?   Why did I start crying after doing hip openers for 2 hours?  They’ll tell you over and over about how we hold tension in our bodies, but it doesn’t mean jack until yoga makes you cry and you’re left with an emotional and physical hangover from a especially successful pigeon pose.  When you have so much stuff sitting in your chest and hips that you can’t run 10 miles without writhing from IT pain for the next day, it’s time to get a little esoteric in your approach to PT.

Thus,  I am embracing the challenge to soften my heart, and by extension, my body.  To soften one’s heart is daunting.  I have spent 28 years steeling my heart against the elements–and it shows in my yoga and in my life.  To let down my defenses now after so long a battle seems daunting. Where will my sarcasm fit in? What of my cynical side?  What is even in there?  What if there’s NOTHING?  Ha.  Hopefully that’s not the case.  More worrying is the fact that in opening and softening, one exposes the most vulnerable parts of herself.  There are reasons we erect the walls we do. 

But, my hope and my ongoing personal challenge is to live with a focus on compassion and opening and melting my heart.   It is a worthy goal and I hope to achieve it, both physically and emotionally. My personal belief is that there is a safety net in compassion that is stronger than the steel I have been girding myself with for so long.   I aim to test it.

 

Yuanfen

Over coffee this morning, I skim emails on my phone.  There are always too many and lately, rather than even reading the subject line I simply check all the boxes next to emails that weren’t sent by a person in the flesh and blood, whose face I can picture, and then hit “delete.” But as I skim, one subject line pops out at me–from a philosophy website that I subscribe to but rarely read.

amp;q=10+relationship+words+that+cannot+be+translated” target=”_blank”>Top 10 Relationship Words that Cannot be Translated to English”

This gives me pause, because try as I might, I can’t stop thinking about love.  It sounds strange to say that, but it’s easier to admit to it than closet it away.  I think about it when I cook, when I write, when I sleep.  I wander through the farmer’s market pondering love and avocado.  I run along the river considering Neruda. Marquez.  Lahiri.  Yuknavitch. Roethke.  Lopez.  Cather. Plato.  I wonder what it is,and what it means, and what it entails for whom and for how long.  I wonder at its forms and at its nuances.  I wonder how it can be bent and hobbled;  how it can overcome unexpected challenges. I wonder if one kind of love trumps another, or if they are really, really, all the same,deserving the same reverence.  I want answers.

In a flash of inspiration, I remove the check from the box and keep it as I delete my other junk mail.
Later in the evening, after a day spent settling into the home I am making in Australia, with my boyfriend, far from my real home and from my past, I think back to the saved email.  I grab my phone and fall into one of the mauve, leather couches that we have scored for free from our old hotel.  They’re incredibly comfortable, despite being mauve and leather.  I open the email and read through the first few, until my gaze settles on one description in particular.

Yuanfen:  A relationship by fate or destiny.  A complex concept that draws on principles of predetermination in Chinese culture, which dictate relationships, encounters, and affinities, mostly among lovers and friends; a binding force that links two people together in any relationship.”

In this description, counter to popular conception, fate and destiny are distinct things, which makes for an interesting exploration of love between the fated versus that of the destined.

I think of fate without destiny.   I think of love without destiny.  I think of fate without love– and fate with love.  I think of destiny without fate.  The permutations are startling in their number. This is what yuanfen means, I guess.  The chance of any two people sharing a moment, or a year, or a boat ride, are so small.  Fate brings two people together, but only destiny keeps them on the same course.

I think of my deepening yoga practice and the readings of the Dalai Lama which have been informing my daily routine. I think of relational existence and attachment.  I think of the rube goldberg that is life if all is predetermined in the way yuanfen suggests.  And I look around, and here I am in Australia, and I am happy.

I wonder at yuanfen some more.