Buddhists talk about learning to cultivate spaciousness: an internal boundlessness, a softness, a room free of excess thought and clutter that lets the tumbleweeds of changing thoughts and moods blow right by, a certain openness to what is, unreliant upon what was or what is to come. Geographies of prana – be they the big Utah sky over the salt flats, or your backyard garden, or a quiet detour off the Appalachian Trail, or a roadside rest stop off the Great Highway overlooking the Pacific Ocean – cultivate this spaciousness, open it up, crack open our chests and allow room for breath and life and a connection with the buzzing kind of material realness that we can only find in nature.
I sit on the roof and soak up the great sunyata, the vast rich empty void that is the night sky, knowing, knowing that I am not this house; I am not this heat; I am not these scarred ankles; I am not this sorrow; I am not this ache of knowing I have let down my poor dead father, who placed so much trust in our ability to hold on to his baby in the years to come.
Neti-neti; not this, not that.
And sitting there drowning in that vast sunyata sky, it is all stars, it is all pine, the air is rich with lush green forest and hope and new growth and creeping Spanish moss. And I lean over and try to pick up a few of the piles of pine needles that have fallen on the roof, threatening it with their heavy wetness; I gather them in my arms, clear the sap, but the needles keep falling, falling, and we keep going, going, and at some point you realize those needles will continue to collect on that precipice whether you are there to gather them or not.
Yoga is often defined as the union of sun and moon elements, a balance between opposites in a marriage of seemingly disparate realities. A yoga practice can bring stillness and sanctuary to scattered urban lives, bridging the gap between cosmopolitan and rural, modern and traditional. Kitchen crafts like making jam can be another way of bringing together what has been separated, honoring natural cycles in the preservation of a season, and reconnecting you with your food through the work of your own hands.
Activities like canning and pickling encourage living simply and sustainably, finding a balance between excess and adequacy. They can be a reminder to practice aparigraha (nongrasping) by encouraging an appreciation for the seasons and a bittersweet respect for the coming and going, the growing and dying, the blooming and fading that are part of being alive in the world. Just as yoga encourages us to pay attention, so urban homesteading teaches us to see the resources that surround us with new eyes.
I am thinking that love changes all the time, our loving and the colors it takes on and the shapes it shifts into and the names and faces it swells into and that is perfect, that is good, that is so very much all as it should be.
I am thinking about leaning across the bar tonight across from F and talking with him long after close as the bar languished in disarray and I didn’t care because there were his accented stories of love and loss and the one love that ended and the other that bloomed and now its subsequent dissolution and the seeds that were planted in both which have since blossomed into one very incredible gift and a few weeds and several very interesting flashes of tangled and twisted glory and pain. And I am thinking of the beauty of how easy it is to connect with a stranger standing there behind the bar open and listening and just offering space wherein he can tell his authentic and true story, sans masks, and to listen to him and really see his pain and sorrow and regret and yet in the very same breath, with the very same eyes, see his relief and his sensibility and his reason and his oh-so-honest and accurate sense that things are as they should be.
The idea of a drishti, that soft gazing point that grounds and centers the practice, is really quite parallel to that of dharana,the sixth limb of Ashtanga yoga, the notion of one-pointed concentration that is part and parcel of meditation. If we truly aspire to live our lives in a dedicated fashion, mindfully, consciously directing our energies, our prana, toward that which is life-giving, life-creating, removing-of-suffering, we can find this meditative drishti in everything we do.
My mother used to sit in church, all of us lined up like ducks in the back pew, and make her Sunday shopping lists while my pastor father preached. I think of that sometimes when I strive to be present in a yoga practice or even in a conversation. Put the list down. Put the phone down. Be there. Listen. Guide all your attention to that gazing point. Let your drishti—whether it’s another person, your teacher, the play you’re watching, the book you’re reading, the music you’re playing—really receive all of your attention.
I like to practice this when I’m folding laundry. I do a lot of laundry, you see, what with teaching yoga, and most days there’s something to be folded. It’s tempting to multi-task, to knock out some phone calls while I fold, to listen to music while I hurriedly stuff socks into drawers. And part of the practice of really finding that one-pointed concentration is to sit down in Hero Pose, or Half-Lotus, and slow my breath, turn off the music, and turn the folding into a seated moving meditation. The drishti goes to the leggings, the long-sleeved t-shirt, the yoga skirts. And before I know it, the swirling thoughts and to-do lists and fears have all slowed down, assuaged, softened, there at the hands of fresh yoga tanks smelling of mountain air detergent and maybe a little laundry softener.
Bartendasana: the huffing-puffing, bending-twisting, sweating-flirting, laughing-cursing embodied moving meditation that is shaking cocktails in a dimly-lit, jazz-infused, oak-scented bar. See also: bhakti ninja.
Buddha in a microbrew? Meditation in a martini? Santosha in a Stella? It’s more plausible than you might think.
Most of you know me as a yogi, or a writer, or a teacher, or maybe a baker; but for a few hours a few nights a week, I’m a bartender. Find me black-clad and spinning circles inside a horseshoe-shaped bar while straining cocktails at warp-speed on any given Friday night, and I think you’ll agree: a bartender is a bhakti ninja.
Suspend disbelief for a few minutes here, and consider the possibility that bartending might be a rich source of yoga, embodied meditation, and a kind of active “practice mat” for yogic values like compassion, patience, and peace. Sure, it can often look like just a lot of broken glasses and spilled wine, tipsy blondes and belligerent drunks, but tending bar can also provide a rare opportunity for prana-rich, fulfilling work (what Marx deliciously called “sensuous labor”), nourishing sangha, energizing physicality, and open-hearted karma yoga. My gig shaking martinis gifts me with a living, breathing space in which to practice listening, observation, mental quietude, living well in the body, and balancing the yin of my yogi/writer’s life with the yang of a bartender’s fast-paced flow. And in that practice comes the softening, the unraveling and the dharma of work that fulfills in unexpected ways.
Some strange sense of deja vu hung over me that whole weekend, and I couldn’t figure it out. It was like I’d been there before. And that’s when I realized. Wanderlust was cheerleading camp for grown-ups.
It’s dangerous, though, you know? Practicing in the sun for hours, concrete under your mat, knees ripped up and feet filthy, you get so lost in the contrived removal from the Real World, this Yoga Disneyland of sorts. It’s tempting, a total tease; after all, who wouldn’t want to leave the day-to-day sludge of the work world behind to just hang out half-naked in a perpetual Savasana, listening to music under the stars, punch-drunk on Parivrtta Parsvakonasana?
The roots of yogic theory, the roots of Zen, the roots of an appreciation for all that is simple and clear and populist and no-bullshit and impermanent and expansive and wide in its emptiness?
Right there on the prairie. For which I will always give thanks.
For making desolation feel normal. For making space seem fundamental. For making stillness appear friendly. And for making the constantly churning, impermanent, suffering-laden reality of life seem, well, so very natural.
SO here’s an ode to the under-appreciated land of my youth. Here’s a shout-out to the Willa Cathers and the Laura Ingalls Wilders and the Harvey Dunns who taught me, growing up there, how rich, how rare, how rolling-around-in-art is this spare, bleak, empty, sunyata place. Here’s to the scrappy pioneer spirit that infuses my own urban reality now: this understanding that only the sitting with what is difficult, and the staying with what is terrifying, and the breathing through what is grotesque and inhumane and so vastly impossibly huge that you’re reminded again and again how very tiny you are, truly a flash on the landscape of being alive, well, it all matters. And it makes us who we are.
One day you’ll feel joyful again; not fake-joyful, or joyful-for-someone-else’s sake, or joyful-because-you-just-poured-two-shots-of-bourbon-in-your-morning-coffee, but joyful, really truly grounded-in-the-awareness-of-the-transience-of-life-joyful, and this new normal will not hurt so much, and this indescribably devastating shift will feel ok.
And it will be your teacher. Your lasagna-eating, cheap red wine-drinking, Yule Log-watching teacher.
And it will lend you grace.
Sternum cracking open in camel, in the wake of a good backbend (ergh, too-tender lower back) and all that anahata energy (unstruck) rushes out
just in time
then there is N sitting across the bar from you in someone else’s hair (eyes welling, yours) where she is staring down the barrel of the gun of the heretofore-unknown but creepingly menacing advanced ovarian cancer (there is so much suffering in the world), and the heart tends to swell and the hand instinctively reaches across the bar to clasp the one it shouldn’t clasp because of a too-tender immune system weakened by chemo (careful, so fragile), this now-delicate little bird across the great chasm (damn bar) pretending at levity, swimming in tender looks from the man at her side whose physical size belies the softness inside, betrayed by the weary eyes you’d not yet seen before that day
the haunting sorrow of knowing this is how she will die
now it is just when
no longer how