Most of us don’t come to the mat because life is peachy. We’re drawn to yoga because of an ache in our hearts or our bones, or a mind that won’t quite stop racing. We come and just practice staying; staying and not reacting, staying and realizing the chaos is not us, staying and realizing we are clear blue sky.
(As Pema Chodron says: Everything else is just the weather.)
It was suffering that brought me to the mat and kept me there, too.
It’s 2002. I am 23, standing at a payphone on the beach in Malaga, Spain when I get the call that will change my life forever.
My son was born on my birthday.
February 22: George Washington’s birthday. Drew Barrymore’s birthday. And mine.
My phone pinged with Facebook notifications as I stood over the hospital trash bin and retched. Three times I emptied my stomach of the apples and peanut butter my husband had lovingly sliced a few hours before. Once into the trash can. Again. And then again into the birthing tub laced with lavender essential oils.
Fiercely feminist, I’d always been ambivalent about having children. I’d watched my peers spawn with nary a twinge of jealousy, content with my books and my yoga. I told myself, “If it happens: great. If it doesn’t: great.”
On our first date, I teased my future husband, Robb, that I’d likely go the way of Sylvia Plath, making the kids sandwiches and sticking my head in the oven.
Six months later, drinking champagne on a pier overlooking Tomales Bay, we were engaged.
A year later, I was pregnant. Robb promised parenthood would make me a better yoga teacher. I rolled my eyes and took a swig of my chai, wishing it were vodka. He was right. Motherhood has made me a much better yoga teacher.
But I was unprepared for the shattering.
Friends, friends: it’s that time of year.
Every December folks roll into my yoga class ready to sweat out all the canapes and martinis they half-drunkenly inhaled the night before. Sometimes they’re wearing six layers of clothing in a 99-degree room so as to “detox” all the pinot and the feta and the gingerbread, armed with liters of coconut water and a couple of big towels for mopping up the evidence.
This always makes me a little bit sad.
I mean, I totally get it. I remember countless hazy, hungover twentysomething mornings spent rolling into Bikram classes feeling like I needed to do the same thing. Too many yoga practices that felt like atonement for the night (or the week) before.
A decade later, as a heated vinyasa teacher myself, I cringe to think that my class could ever be complicit in my students’ self-abasement.
So here I am to remind you: hot yoga is not a punishment.
Last Tuesday night, while voters across the country were surfing a big blue wave, I settled in for a hot date with Sally Yates. She was in conversation with Associated Press national political writer Lisa Lerer at Harvard’s Kennedy School Institute of Politics, and the room was packed. Security tape wrapped the entrances; police officers stood guard along the walls.
I haven’t been so fangirl-excited in a long time.
We’re talking SALLY YATES, PEOPLE.
As moderator Lerer quipped, “Sally Yates might be best well known for what she didn’t do — which was defend Trump’s travel ban.”
So what’d I learn?
I don’t know a single woman who’s never been sexually harassed, or worse. “Me too,” of course. Duh.
It is a part of growing up female.
You learn to clench your jaw and walk faster and stare straight ahead and just get away as quickly as you can, before the cat-caller or the construction worker or the guy following you can catch up.
And it’s as endemic to the yoga world as it is to the film world, or the political world, or the finance world.
When I teach the history of yoga, in particular the evolution of yoga in the 20th century, it’s a history of sexual predators. (Overwhelmingly) male gurus who employed their social capital for sex, manipulation, emotional abuse, you name it.
The last time I taught it, as I flipped through slide after slide of influential contemporary teachers, Pattabhi Jois and John Friend and Bikram and others whose abuses of power are still less public-knowledge (for now), the students just shook their heads in disbelief.
(“Him, too?” “Yeah, he’s in trouble for sex scandals, too. Next slide. Oh yes, him, too.”).
The shadow is real.
I have seen it myself.
How do you have a conversation about “enoughness” in a city that is constantly hustling to create the latest million-dollar app?
San Francisco-based Buddhist choreographer Claudia Anata Hubiak’s latest work, Point of Dissolve, contemplates the tension between effort and ease and counters the idea that working harder leads to greater self-worth.
Hubiak’s dance company, The Anata Project, is a hybrid of Buddhist principles and contemporary movement arts, rooted in mindfulness, groundlessness, and embodiment.
At her company’s core is the concept of anatta, a Pali word that translates as not-self or egolessness. It also happens to be Hubiak’s middle name, given to her by the renowned Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, whom her parents studied with.
Point of Dissolve “addresses the cultivation of joy within a continuum of effort and ease,” examining the existential question of what it means to be “good enough,” to relax into what is without constantly striving.
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.
It’s over a month now that Michael Stone is gone.
What a strange word that is: gone.
Gone, Gone, Gone beyond Gone utterly beyond
Like many of us, I can’t quite believe it.
Michael’s face keeps popping up on my Facebook feed, and for a split-second my mind thinks it’s a new blog or an unheard podcast or an upcoming retreat, for the briefest moment excited to see what wisdom offering might be around the corner.
And then I remember he is gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha
Gone from suffering into the liberation from suffering.
My 20th high school reunion is coming up next week.
How did THAT happen? More importantly: Should I go?
It’s in Nebraska, so I’d have to book a flight (with connections), rent a car, haul my kid across time zones, and find something decent to wear. Not to mention all that torturous small talk once I actually get there. As an introvert, trying to catch up on two decades of relative strangers’ lives over cocktail weenies and cheap wine is perhaps my worst nightmare.
There are a million reasons to just blow it off, not the least of which being that reunions in a post-Facebook world yield fewer surprises than they did before. Most of us are familiar with some version of one another’s lives, even if it’s a glossily curated edition.
But there’s a reason Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion became a cult hit. It articulated something most of us don’t say out loud: it can be so damn hard to go back.
In the yoga world, we use the Sanskrit phrase “Sthira Sukham Asanam” to describe the complementary balance of effort and ease, strength and softness necessary in every pose. Sutra 2.46 lays out the way in which each asana (literally, “seat”) should be a kind of relationship, an ongoing conversation between steady, active presence and yielding, relaxed stillness. The combination of the two qualities creates a yin-yang kind of wholeness that is strongly rooted, firm in foundation, confident and stable — and at the same time malleable, easy to adapt, gentle in spirit and undeniable in the face of transition. …
When I met my husband (unsuspecting, in a yoga class), I fell in love with his finely-tuned practice of Sthira Sukham Asanam. A longtime yogi, he was capable of being at once resolute and confident, tender and gentle. He could throw back a beer in one breath and quote Hafiz in the next. …
The most challenging practice has been finding center, grasping at sattva in the moments of sleeplessness, of relentless, bone-breaking parenting. Fumbling to stay calm at the changing table when the little man wriggles off. Struggling not to yell when he refuses to get into his high chair for the fiftieth time. Trying to be tender with one another when we’re both rundown and under-slept and haven’t showered in four days.
The idea is, of course, not to nail every posture (or every diaper change), but to let go and roll with the punches, to allow the sensations — the fear, the anger, the exhaustion — to move through you and to just get out of the way, exhaling into the quiet that’s always there under the chaos, paying attention to how everything is perpetually changing from day to day, moment to moment, breath to breath.
And then it passes.