Ujjayi Breath and the Burden of Being Human

July 8, 2014 at 12:50 am (Community, Faith, Yoga) (, , , )

My breath is ragged and uneven, here a grunt and there a gasp. My mind wanders, to grocery lists and carpools, to doctors’ appointments and dinner plans, but I reign it back in, and try, for the umpteenth time, to smooth out my exhalation, to lengthen my inhalation…to yoke my breath to my movement to my brain. I’m at yoga, and I can hear the ujjayi breath of the men and women around me. Breath with sound…it is even, ineluctable. It washes over me like the waves of the ocean. I close my eyes, even though I’m not supposed to, and bathe in the sound. I can’t add to it. If the combined breath of the men and women in that room is the Atlantic Ocean, mine is a little creek, so insignificant it dries up in the summer, so unimportant it’s short i, not long e.

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My mind wanders again, but this time to the words of the gospel I heard yesterday at mass.

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

I heard the same gospel at a funeral a few weeks ago. “The yoke doesn’t seem easy or light,” said the priest. “It only becomes that way because we share the burden together.” I held onto that thought as I choked my way through the familiar prayers and hymns, adding my voice thick with tears to the rest of the congregation’s. “There is nothing I can say or do,” I thought. “But I am here, with these people, saying these words and singing these songs. It is nothing, but it is all I can do. Maybe it is enough.”

And so I join my little creek to the ocean of sound as I move through my yoga practice. In and out, labored and burdened, but shared. What I have, I will add to the room. What I can, I will give.

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Dialing Down the Crazy…a True Story of Ash Wednesday, Yoga and Gilbert & Sullivan

March 5, 2014 at 4:42 am (Faith, Kids) (, , , )

Aaaaaaaand it’s Ash Wednesday again – my blogiversary, and the beginning of perhaps my favorite church season, Lent. I was sort of stumped on what to write about, to tell you the truth, but determined to think of something since Ash Wednesday is evidently THE ONLY day I won’t let pass without a blog post, and phew! here it is. My annual post.

So at yoga, you can set an intention before you begin your practice. For me anyway, it makes my work on the mat a physical expression of prayer, like the dervishes, or the Shakers, except with incense and lycra. I often go through my mental Rolodex of friends and family before class or my own private practice, offering up my effort for the people I love best. (It’s interesting how it works…the two seem to dovetail until the person I’m praying for and the practice mirror or match each other. A while ago, I set one of my dearest friends who was going through a tough time as my intention, and the yoga was hard. Or I set my youngest child who radiates light as my intention, and the yoga was easy).

Anyway. I escaped to class last night by bribing my husband to take our son to violin, and getting take-out burgers for dinner. Before class began, I was thinking about who to pray for, and my oldest daughter popped into my head. I have some people on my list who ostensibly need prayin’ a whole lot more than she does, but thinking of her working on her book report at the dining table as I dashed through on my way out the door made me smile, so I offered up the class for her. For Riley, I said, closing my eyes and smiling as I stood at the top of my mat.

As class began, my teacher said we would work on backbends (boo!) and reminded us not to let our minds boss us around. Well, I’m paraphrasing, but her point was that while we need to respect and be compassionate toward our bodies and their limits, sometimes our brains put the brakes on way before they need to…and that frequently we are capable of more than we give ourselves credit for. She also pointed out that backbending, which is considered to aid the nervous system, can be intense, and can open you up to a lot of emotion.

If you know my daughter, a lot of that will seem pretty pertinent. And if you don’t, you can take my word for it. She’s nervous, she’s intense, she’s emotional, and she has a fiercely big brain which frankly, gives her a lot of guff.

That’s all very nice, you say, and kind of a cool coincidence, but what about Ash Wednesday? Patience, grasshopper. I’m coming to that part.

So my darling daughter has a problem with overreacting to things. Falling apart because she asked the wrong person for Fiddling Fernando in Go Fish for example, or exploding because her brother is being poky tying his shoes again. Actually, to be truthful, it’s us that have the problem with her overreacting. I don’t know. I think sometimes her gauge of what’s reasonable just needs to be rejiggered. We had a great conversation about it the other day, and we came up with the idea that I could just shoot a codeword at her, and then she’d know that maybe she was at DEFCON 1, when really 5 was all that was called for. and maybe that would pull her back from the emotional cliff.

And here’s where Gilbert & Sullivan come in. I got the idea from Ruddigore, a G&S operetta I was in in grad school. I played a character named Mad Margaret who is unhinged by lost love when you meet her in the first act, but who is (mostly) cured when she is eventually reunited with her soulmate, Sir Despard. Mags has the terrific idea that when she veers off course into CrazyTown, Sir Despard can pull her back by saying only “Basingstoke,” the name of a real town in England. I don’t know whether it’s crazy or not. I’ve never been. But anyway Riley and I now have our own version of “Basingstoke,” and I won’t tell you what it is, because that would defeat the whole purpose of the codeword.

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And NOW I sew this all up together with Lent. I realized during yoga last night, mid-backbend, that Lent is our Basingstoke. Life is so bananas, batshit crazy most of the time for all of us that we LIVE on the edge of the cliff…but every year Lent rolls around again saying “Basingstoke!” which really means “yes, your schedule wants to eat you alive, and your children make demands on you and your parents need you and you’re neglecting friends and you’ve only gone to yoga a couple of times since your New Year’s resolution to go all the time, and you’ve blown several obligations and you didn’t see a single movie in the theater in the whole of last year, and you’re drinking too much and you’re eating crap and you gossip and you don’t have faith, but take a minute. In fact, take 57,600 minutes -that’s how many minutes there are in the 40 days of Lent – and do these three things: Pray. Fast. Give alms. Or put it another way if that’s too churchy for you: Reflect. Streamline. Love more.”

So this Ash Wednesday, that’s what I’ve got for you: Basingstoke. And maybe more yoga.

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St. Therese of Lisieux and Why Yoga is Really Kind of a Catholic Thing to Do

March 9, 2011 at 10:50 pm (Faith) (, , , , , )

First, a couple of disclaimers.

One, I have no evidence that Saint Therese of Lisieux ever practiced yoga. In fact, I highly doubt that, growing up as she did in late nineteenth century France, Saint Therese had ever even heard of yoga, let alone extolled its benefits.

Two, until quite recently, I was not the biggest fan of the “Little Flower” as she is known. She seemed to me to be a little bit of a goody-two shoes, frankly (which admittedly is a funny thing to think about a saint) and a little too sweet and too holy for real life.

I’m kind of coming around on Saint Therese though, and yoga is partially responsible. Saint Therese is probably best known for her “little way,” a path to holiness through the ordinariness of daily life. Everything Saint Therese did, she offered up to God not just in prayer, but as prayer. This has real resonance for me, as I go through my day, putting away dishes, washing bathrooms, making the school run, etc. How beautiful to give meaning and heft to those mundane activities, to say to God as I vacuum, “Dear Lord, I am doing this in loving prayer for Henry – please heal his pulled groin.” What a better use for my energy than, “Ugh, I can’t believe I’m doing laundry AGAIN.” So lately I’ve been giving Saint Therese a second look. (She’s one of only three female “Doctors of the Church” – I don’t know, it might come up on Jeopardy.)

Now check out this program I heard on the radio about yogi Sean Corne. (There’s a video too, of her demonstrating “body prayer” which is incredible – her breath sounds like the ocean tides.) In the yoga classes I’ve attended I’ve heard any number of philosophies of yoga but I hadn’t ever heard anyone mention offering up one’s yoga practice for a specific intention before, as Sean does here, talking about offering up her practice for her dad who was battling cancer, or for a broader petition like healing the environment. I totally love the idea. It’s so Catholic and it makes such sense – it reminds me of Saint Therese and her little way.

So there you have it – yoga as prayer, scrubbing toilets as prayer. Prayers, prayers everywhere. Not a bad way to start Lent. Happy Ash Wednesday.

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