And so she woke up
Woke up from where she was
Said I gotta do something
About where we’re going
She’s running to stand . . . Still.
-U2 “Running to Stand Still“
I wrote a story two years ago about yoga and cancer and anger. A lot of people read it. Manduka, a company that manufactures yoga mats, tweeted an excerpt and link to thousands of people under the caption “The Angry Yoga Guy Catches a Blessing.” The Blog saw a few days of traffic, and then it was just me again, working on drafts I couldn’t finish. That story came out of my rage -and my wife’s rage- and the serenity and peace I found practicing yoga.
I have had nothing to say since.
I am not as angry now as I was when I wrote that story, which was originally titled, “The Angry Yoga Guy and What Happened Next.” I liked the title, but the story wasn’t really about anger, it was about finding some balance in the midst of chaos. So one day I changed it. “Between Rage and Serenity” is the way I read the story today.
And the way I remember it.
That title – those four words- are all I have had to offer in two years. Sometimes I check the blog, just to see that it is still there. I feel some pressure to come up with something new-I want to- but the words don’t come.
This, too, is part of my yoga practice. I’m not rushing anything. The words will come when it is time for words. Billy, my yoga instructor, often says, “Don’t force anything. Let your practice come to you.”
I’m not sure Billy realizes the impact he has had on my thinking. How these little comments expand in my awareness, my life, my practice.
My wife’s cancer -and the fear and disfunction it brought- focused my yoga practice that first year. It motivated me and I was energized, but in the wrong way. Looking back, I realize I was panicked. A basic fight or flight reflex. I was afraid I was losing my wife, and I channeled that fear. I turned it into physical energy. I wanted to be present in my children’s lives for a long, long time, but that was a focus on the future. I needed to find myself in the present, first. I like to say that there is no time travel on a yoga mat.
Atha yoga anushasanam. “Now this is yoga as I have perceived it in the natural world.”
Yoga keeps me in the present.
My practice began as exercise and little more, but it very quickly renewed me spiritually. I was praying and seeking God. I prayed in ways I had never prayed before. Looked for God in places I had never looked before. The anniversary of my first year on the mat felt like a great accomplishment, and my wife was getting better, the chemotherapy finished, and a sense of normalcy had returned all us all to routines safe and familiar.
And then I lost my voice – figuratively.
I quit looking at the blog and the titles of unfinished drafts for which I had no more words.
The yoga practice continued, the fear of cancer retreating, but never really gone. I lost my focus. Sometimes, I told myself I didn’t really need this. That I never stuck too long with anything, and yoga would be no different. I didn’t feel like I had the physical strength, the flexibility, or the discipline to keep this up – especially as a daily practice. I told myself that I was too old. The mind . . . it can be harsh, critical, and filled with contempt.
And none of it was real.
My instructors, Billy and Shosh, Barb, they were guiding us into a deeper, more disciplined practice. The classes were demanding. The poses, intermediate to advanced. The mat below me covered in sweat. At least that hadn’t changed.
And the voice in my head said, “I can’t.” And sometimes I believed it. I spent so much time in my head I couldn’t focus on what was happening on the mat.
And time moved so slowly.
My watch and phone were in my yoga bag, pushed against a wall of the studio not three feet away, and every day I stood on that mat I was tempted to check the time, count the minutes, though I never did. It seemed sometimes like practice would never end. I imagined myself driving home, taking a shower. I thought about dinner. I thought about work. Ideas and thoughts bounced around in my head like someone dumped a basket of ping pong balls on a floor.
It wasn’t until I started meditating that I realized all of this was natural. It is called “the monkey mind.” Yoga is a moving, breathing meditation, and the mind has to learn to settle down, work through the noise. Let go.
It sounds easy.
Thoughts come rushing into my mind, some demanding. Some float gently, tempting. The ether of dreams and the past forgotten. There are worries, anxiety, doubt. The mind struggles, demands.
The Self observes.
I learned a form of meditation at the Chopra Center in Southern California called primordial sound meditation. Mantras are sound vibrations that can help divert the mind from the incessant barrage of thoughts that come before the stillness. Mantras help us focus . . . and more. Sutras are mantras with meanings and those meanings can be simple or complex. In the book, The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire, Deepak Chopra explains that “every time a mantra or sutra is used, it helps increase the probability that a similar outcome will result from a later use of the same mantra or sutra . . . every time a [sound] wave particle collapses as a particular wave pattern, it increases the likelihood that it will collapse as that same pattern of wave again in the future. Sutras are actually intentions that increase the statistical likelihood of the collapse of a wave function along predictable probability amplitudes. This means that the more a sutra is used, the greater the likelihood that its chosen intention will be fulfilled. Therefore, it is better to use an old, well-used sutra than a new sutra.”
These sutras – these prayers – they are imbued with power through centuries of mindful intention and repetition.
I am reminded of a particularly powerful sutra. It begins with the words . . .
“Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”
I realize now that my practice that first year was almost entirely physical, though I did enjoy many insights and benefits. I also realize that my true practice didn’t really begin until that second year, when the chaos let loose in my mind.
That’s when I became a yogi.
And I am sitting on my mat, legs crossed, knees resting on the floor. When I began my practice, I couldn’t sit cross-legged. Now I am in half lotus, one foot resting on top of my thigh. My posture has improved and I am sitting tall. Billy is talking, a quiet, peaceful voice in the stillness of this beautiful yoga studio. “Yoga,” he says, “is a guided meditation. Settle in. Observe your breathing. You know how to do this. Sometimes it takes half an hour to find that place. Sometimes . . . three breaths is all it takes and you’re there.”
Tonight, I am there.
Our hands are pressed together in the prayer position –namaskar- and we begin with a single chant of OM.
The air is vibrating with energy.
It is now well over two years since I first entered this studio.
We stretch, arms up to the ceiling, palms come together, and back down to heart center, breathing, hands pressed in prayer position. This is a posture, a practice itself. Once more and the left hand lowers, arm straight, and finds the floor, the right arm curved gracefully over the head, stretching the length of the right side body. Billy is talking, “Breathe into this posture. Maybe the elbow is available.” And after two years of dedicated practice, it is today available. I look up to the ceiling, past the curving arch of my arm. Finding new depth in a pose changes every aspect of my practice. It renews it. The body has changed, the mind has changed, and the energy moves differently, aligned through chakras and the sacred architecture of the body. There is a subtle change in alignment, orientation, that is mental, spiritual, and physical. The balance between the elbow and sit bones is new, and feels good.
The universe is open for business.
Shosh tells me one day after class that yoga doesn’t give us anything, it simply reveals what is already there. I have been learning this for myself. My first year of practice, I was surprised at how inflexible my body was. I was frustrated at my lack of balance, falling out of postures or never really finding my way into them. But I was inflexible in other ways, and my life was far out of balance. What was happening on my mat was just a reflection of what was happening in my life. I lacked humility, so I had to learn to bend. To kneel. It has taken two years for my body and mind to find their way into humble warrior pose, and I think about this every time I lower myself down, and still struggle a little with that second elbow. That pose still isn’t where it should be, and I am mindful of this every time I kneel down, and I am mindful of it in my work, in my home, and every other aspect of my life.
Practice humility. You will see the light, the Spirit, in others.
I remind myself that ego has no place here. That all these things we think we are, they are transient. Illusion. None of it remains when we pass into the next life so what, then, are we?
That’s the big question, and I think it is one we naturally seek to answer in a number of ways, some of them misdirected, though well intended.
Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” It is an early lesson on the importance of self-reflection. And Shakespeare wrote, “This above all else: To thine own self be true,” which more than implies that we must know the Self in order to be true to it. This is no small thing, and there are too many that never find it. They mistake the mind, for the Self. Desires for actual needs.
How do I know this?
I see people working in jobs and following paths that are not suited to them. They are in relationships that are not healthy for them. The divorce rate is above fifty percent. There are wars, and rumors of wars. People are unhealthy mentally, physically, and spiritually – buying and eating and drinking and demanding more in order to fill needs that remain unfulfilled.
They don’t know what those needs are because they don’t know who they are. For this reason, they don’t know what they want, or what their true purpose is – their dharma.
They are running to stand still.
A year ago we had another cancer scare. There was a PET scan, and a growth on a bone, and we were in a storm that came so suddenly there was no time to prepare. Brooke and I lost our way for a time. She had radiation treatments, her medication was changed, and we kept it pretty quiet.
We never did tell the kids.
I sat on my mat wondering if somebody up there was trying to tell me something.
And I remembered a story from the Bible. Jesus is with his disciples -his friends- in a small boat out on the water. He has been teaching all day and is sleeping on the boat, and a storm comes from out of nowhere.
That’s the way they always come.
This is no small storm, though. It is a tempest, and the boat is taking on water. It is on the verge of sinking, and the men aboard are panicked. Except Jesus. Desperate, they wake him up and ask, “Don’t you care that we are sinking?”
He gets up, and speaking to the storm says, “Be still.”
And the storm is no more.
As an English Professor, it is difficult not to read this as a metaphor. The storm that comes so quickly, put your own name on it. Bankruptcy, death, infidelity . . . cancer. And the panic? We know that all too well.
I like to think that after Jesus says, “Be still,” he gives a quick look at his frightened friends on the boat. A nod and a wink. Watch and learn.
We can calm storms, too. And in much the same way.
And see the path before you.
And know your heart’s desire.
And find your Self – your dharma – your purpose.
And I am standing on my mat – around me a storm is raging, beyond this space, these walls, this life.
And I am at the center, untouched, balanced on one leg, my arm stretched out toward the mirror, the other gripping my other foot, pulling, the leg bent in a graceful arch – Dancing Shiva, or Standing Bow Pose.
I feel light – almost weightless.
Over these past months, I have found my balance, both inside and outside the studio. Shosh walks by and says, “steadiness and grace.” I am beginning to understand this word, samadhi – a state of perfected concentration. And yoga? It is a union of those things that were never separated in the first place. A union of breath, body, mind and movement. It’s written right across the door – at Yoga Deva.
Samadhi is the realization of who we are – at the deepest level.
And we are not fear. We are born of light and promise. We are steadiness and grace.
“Yoga,” Billy says, “is just a rush to stillness.”
And tonight, I am there.
My practice is three years old.
And it has been three years since Brooke’s original diagnosis. There have been two more PET scans since the last scare – both of them clear.
I have no sense of time passing. And I do not dwell on the past, nor do I worry about the future.
There will be other storms, no doubt.
Yoga doesn’t give us anything. It simply reveals what is already there.
And I am sitting on my mat . . . still.
Billy enters the room and says, “Everyone is here, that’s supposed to be here.”
I take three breaths, and settle in.
And today, I am 51 years old. It is my birthday, and I am good with that.
Everyone is here that is supposed to be here.
I am here. Present, in this moment.
Somewhere, a bell chimes three times.
Om shanti shanti shanti Om
It is an invocation of peace.
Om shanti shanti shanti Om
On Earth as it is in Heaven . . .