Keith Eubanks II

Posts Tagged ‘yoga’

Between Rage and Serenity

In Dreams on March 4, 2012 at 9:19 am

“Six o’clock in the morning, you’re the last to hear the warning, you’ve been tryin’ to throw your arms around the world.” – U2

It has been months now since I have written a word.

I am siting on the floor in a small yoga studio, my body bent double over my right leg, arms stretched out, hands gripping my foot. My forehead is only an inch from my knee and I am willing it lower. It has taken months to get here. Sweat is dripping off my brow and onto the mat beneath me, forming a small puddle. My instructor this evening, Shosh, is on the ground talking to me. “Look at you,” she says softly. “Remember your first day? You’re getting better.”

I think about this. Am I better? I came here in desperation. I had asked a question of the Universe -of God- but could not hear the answer. There was a noise in my head – a constant, chaotic drumming that was poisoning my mind, stealing my breath, and I was afraid.

The future I had once seen so vividly was now hidden, obscured in a new reality. It had come like a dark, shifty shadow from beyond my dreams.

Her dreams.

These things, we say, happen to other people – not to us.

But it happened.

To us.

My wife, Brooke, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and each test brought worse news. Finally, the verdict came and it was every bad thing that we had hoped to avoid. Mastectomy. Chemotherapy. Radiation. A future of endless doctor’s appointments, each a reminder that this might not be finished – might never be finished.

There is a kind of fear  particular to life and death situations. You feel it the body. It makes your mouth go dry.

Insanity in our home. A living nightmare of running but going nowhere. I kept saying to her, to myself, “I thought things like this brought people closer together. Made them stronger.”

But we were coming undone.

And I was angry. Angry at this intrusion so ill-timed, unwanted, unnecessary, unfair. Angry at her for getting sick.  It isn’t right, but it’s true.   And I was angry at my sudden dependence on people I never wanted to know for her health and well-being.

I couldn’t sleep – for weeks. I sat in my office with the blinds closed, avoiding friends and colleagues. My lectures became simple recitations. I had said it all before and I grew tired of the sound of my own voice. At night I stared into the dark trying to pray. I knelt by the bed, trying to pray. I lay face down on the ground . . . trying to pray.

Eventually, I ran out of things to say. I have said them all before. Forgive me. Help me. Are you really out there?

I don’t know what I expected. That everything would be better tomorrow? A voice in the heavy darkness? A white light?

Inner peace.

I don’t know.

So I start at the beginning. I breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth. “If you get lost,” Billy says, “you can always come back to your breathing.” I have taken many classes from Billy over the months and when I think about yoga, and what I have learned from my practice, it is his voice I hear. I take a deep breath and try to add some intention – some awareness- to this most basic reflex.

And it’s about time. I have been holding my breath – for a long time now.

I just didn’t know it.


I am standing in mountain pose. My feet are planted firmly into the ground beneath me. My hands extend a short distance beside my hips, hands open, palms facing forward, forming a triangle from the top of my head down the length of my arms. Billy says this is a powerful pose – a receiving pose. The universe is open for business.

And I am trying to catch a blessing.

But first I have to catch my breath. These simple poses – they aren’t so simple. About forty-five minutes into my first class I nearly fall down onto the floor laughing at my lack of conditioning and discipline. I have learned that this is a common response. People laugh when they’ve had enough, and it occurs to me as I write these words that this reflex is really the correct response to so many of our problems. Ideally, we should meet the end of our lives with laughter. But it is early in my practice and I haven’t learned this lesson yet, and there is no humor in this laugh. It is some other version of me laughing, mocking my own inadequacy. I try to shut it down but I am so tired. Dripping sweat, struggling to breathe, I begin to doubt all of this – my being here. Yoga. And I haven’t moved my body further than the dimensions of my yoga mat – twelve square feet.

But I stay.

“Honor your practice,” Shosh says early one Sunday morning and I try, but my ego is with me on that mat, and there is very little room left for me. I want everything to be perfect and frustration creeps in. In the studio around me are beautiful girls with lithe yoga physiques moving through the asanas with such grace and focus that I feel big and inflexible. Sometimes I cheat, bending a knee, sliping down to the ground for a moment of rest. Sometimes I stand on my mat with my hands on my hips and shake my head, trying to breathe. The voice in my head says I’ll never be able to do this. It isn’t what I want to hear. This isn’t the answer I was looking for.

But I stay. I don’t know why. I just do.

When I first walked into Yoga Deva I felt an intuitive connection to the place – like finding a sacred space I had once visited in a dream and then found again a world away. The place seemed to say, Welcome back. What took you so long? And I knew I would explore this empty space in my heart and my mind in this place that seemed like it had been prepared for me.

I can breathe here.

Preparing for practice on a beautiful Fall evening, two girls walk into the studio chatting. One is a member and she has brought her friend. They roll their mats onto the floor indifferently as they continue their conversation – a he said she said recitation of some date that didn’t seem to go to well. They finally sit on their mats as Billy enters the room. The blonde girl sitting closest to me has placed her iPhone on a folded towel next to her. She tells Billy, “I just want you to know,” pointing to the phone, “I don’t plan on answering it. It’s just . . . my kids are with the babysitter.”

Billy smiles and says quietly, “We built this place so you wouldn’t have to worry about those,” indicating the phone, and begins practice.


And my feet are planted under me, wider than my hips, heels out, toes in. My hands are gripping my ankles and I am pulling myself into a deep forward fold, my head between my knees. I release the grip and we rise up, as a class, backs straight and stop halfway in a table top position, arms stretched out like the wings of an airplane. We hold this position and Billy is talking about a song he heard this morning. It has been with him all day. “It’s six o’clock in the morning, you’re the last to hear the warning, you’ve been tryin’ to throw your arms around the world.”

Achtung Baby. I love this music.

“Reach out with your arms,” he says. Extend. “Past Pecos Road and Chandler Boulevard. Extend. Past the 202. Try and throw your arms around the world.”

And I reach. I stretch. I think about my wife and my kids. I think about this life we have. And I try in that moment to embrace it all for what it is right now.

I came here because I was afraid I was going to lose Brooke. That’s the truth. I imagined waking up with these young girls -my children- and she wouldn’t be there. I was over-weight. My blood pressure was creeping up. My face was red.

“Have you been in the sun?” people would ask of my ruddy complexion.

I hadn’t.

So I thought I better get healthy. I felt, for the first time, that it might all come down to me – alone. My neighbor kept talking about this yoga studio where she had practiced so I walked across the street and asked her, “What was the name of the place you told me about? That yoga studio?”

I had reached a tipping point.

Those physical changes I wanted came, but something else happened, too. The practice became something else, very quickly. I was working for the yoga body. What I found was the yoga mind.

I started with a nine dollar mat from Target. This was to appease my wife, since the classes were significantly more expensive than the twenty dollars I was currently paying for the gym I wasn’t using. I cut the sleeves off a t-shirt and wore a pair of old sweat pants that hadn’t seen much sweat. My round stomach protruded under my shirt and I think I looked like a middle-aged guy that would use his twenty-nine dollar two week introductory lessons, never to return.

But I stayed. I think the psychological trauma I was experiencing in every other part of my life was balanced by the physical practice. It made sense in a way. Billy would remind the class to leave everything at the door.

I left everything on the mat.

“If you are too much in the mind,” Billy says, “pay more attention to the body. If you are too much in the body, bring more awareness to the mind.”

And two weeks turned to twelve and before I knew it, I was developing a disciplined yoga practice.

I am sitting in the the studio, my legs crossed, listening to the sound of my own breathing. When I began this practice, I could barely sit this way. Now, my knees are an inch from the floor. My eyes are closed, my arms resting on my thighs, and Billy is talking. These are the moments we take to center ourselves before we begin the asanas, the movement or flow of yoga poses. Billy says, “If you take one step towards a disciplined yoga practice, that yoga practice takes ten steps towards you.”

The nine dollar mat got me this far, but even my wife can see that I am serious about this. I buy a new mat. I research and read reviews and finally decide on a Manduka mat and a mat bag. I trade the baggy sweats and old t-shirts for some workout clothes that are more suited to the practice. I feel like I have earned these things.

The mat is a sacred space. A platform that allows me to temporarily stop traveling to the past or some unrealized future. There is no time traveling on a yoga mat. It’s all about the present.

And I am drenched in sweat. “Bring your hands to heart-center,” Billy says, “In honor of your standing series.” I press the palms of my hands together and bow my head. “Now shake that out,” he says. “Whatever happened, or didn’t happen. No judgements. Let it go. It’s in the past.”

My wife’s hair has fallen out from the chemotherapy. I sit with her for every treatment. There are lots of needles, and I see what all of this is doing to her. I am watching her carefully. Every moment. Nothing is lost. I keep much to myself. I am holding her in my mind. I am covering her in light.

And I pray – but not at home. And not in church.

I pray in the yoga studio. The serenity of the place quiets my mind and I begin, in this place, to hear the answers to the questions I asked, and I realize they are all within me. But it takes a quiet mind to hear them. It is the small still voice I have heard so much about – no thunder, no flashes of cosmic light- and hearing it requires patience and practice.

Everything is practice, and in yoga I found a metaphor for all of it.

My body is straining, my clothes wet from the exertion, and Billy reminds me to set an intention for “someone going through a difficult time or illness.” He knows the story. So when my arms are shaking or my mind starts to wander I think of Brooke. I think of needles and toxic chemicals. I think of the scars and the fears and the incredible beauty that shines through all of it. I think of how privileged I am to be her witness. To sit with her, to pray for her.

And I breathe.

My left knee is bent into a deep lunge and the palm of my left hand is pressed into the mat, close to the arch of my foot. My right arm is stretching straight up to the ceiling. Billy is talking. “Press that hand into the mat. Push. Everything that doesn’t serve you. Push it away.”

And I am suddenly surrounded in a ball of white light radiating out from the palm of my hand, pressed into the floor, to the tips of my fingers stretching upward. For a moment, my mind is clear and I feel light radiating from within and around me.

And for a moment, I feel safe.

The universe is open for business.

When we got the cancer diagnosis Brooke put a few holes in the walls of our home. She was upstairs – raging. In truth, I didn’t think our marriage was ready for this. She didn’t either. What I have learned over the past several months of practice is that our marriage needed this.

Really.

We had come to a place where we both needed to grow. It sounds good – but the journey is a real bitch. We turned on each other and for a while we both thought cancer would be the thing to break us. We were facing our worst fears and we had those conversations. Brooke, by her own admission, had been arrogant in her health and physical ability. I was afraid of doctors and despised the impersonal intrusions and violations of the medical practice.

So Brooke lost what she prized most, and I faced what I feared most.

One afternoon, after a fight that might have been a deal-breaker for our marriage, I called my cousin, David. I said, “I thought these kinds of things brought people closer together.”

“Cindy and I have some experience with this sort of thing,” he replied, “and I can tell you that it doesn’t feel that way when it is happening.”

So this, too, is a disciplined practice.

While I was working it out in the yoga studio, Brooke was fueling her rage. She needed it. She was channeling it – with intention. She was angry about the cancer. She was going to fight it, and she is a fighter. Her anger was a form of energy channeled -barely- toward the cancer.

And I was raging too. Unpredictably.

Early one morning I am driving to work listening to Buddist Lamas chanting in my headphones over a soundtrack of rhythmic, spacial sounds. The sun is about to rise and I am lost in thought. But something slowly brings my awareness back to the car. The truck ahead of me is driving at least ten miles under the speed limit. There is oncoming traffic and I can’t get around him. He has many chances to pull over, but he doesn’t and I am now close to him, moving my car into the next lane and back again, signally that I am trying to pass. He knows I am there. He sees me. Another place to move aside – he should move aside- and he doesn’t. Finally, there is a break in the traffic and I pull up next to him pressing my middle finger into the glass of the passenger window. He sees me and I look pointedly into his eyes as I press the gas pedal to the floor. And as I pass the car, indulging in all of these angry and triumphant feelings I remember that I am not driving my car. I am in my wife’s car, and there is a sticker on the back window of Jesus, a crown of thorns on his head. It was there when we bought the car and it was left there in silent agreement – a superstitious impulse about God and cancer.

I took a deep breath and realized instantly that all of this had been a test, and I had failed it miserably. I thought of the driver I had just passed, probably wondering why Jesus had just flipped him off, and I laughed out loud. “Let that all go,” I heard Billy say. “What happened or didn’t happen. It’s all in the past.”

I’d like to say that these are isolated outbursts, but they aren’t.  Brooke calls me the “angry yoga guy.” I am trying to find balance, but I am living in moments that are all extremes. And just when I think I am beginning to master my impulses I fail. Mary, another instructor at Yoga Deva, reminds me that our practice doesn’t only happen on the mat. In fact, we need to find ways to take it off the mat – with intention. Two days after Thanksgiving I had an accident riding my bike and seriously sprained my hand. I couldn’t practice for two weeks and had to change the way I did things when I could practice. I was frustrated – and angry. “That’s your practice.” Mary told me, smiling. She seemed happy for me. In her Yin class nothing is forced. The body finds its way over time, and it is a slow process that requires patience, but builds incredible strength. We find our way – over time.

And that’s your practice.

I am standing on one leg, trying to find my balance. Shosh sits on the floor, her back against a wall of mirrors, watching a timer as we try to hold this pose for at least a minute. I am reaching back and holding onto my left foot, which is pushing back against the pull of my hand. My leg is bent like a bow. I am leaning forward, by body parallel to the floor, my right arm reaching straight out in front of me like I am flying. I am looking for a dristi – a focal point that will center the awareness and help me find balance. I do find balance, and for a moment I begin to think that I can hold this pose for that minute. And then I fall. You can’t over think it. My leg drops to the floor reflexively and I stand there, head down, my hands on my hips, catching my breath.

“If you fall,” Shosh says, “good for you. It’s called yoga practice, not yoga perfect.”

She seems happy for me, too.

One evening I took Brooke to the movies. She was having Chemo treatments, so we went to a weeknight show where there would be fewer people around. Her immune system was seriously compromised. We were watching X-Men: First Class. In the middle of the film, Xavier is trying to teach Eric how to channel his powers. Eric can telepathically move anything that is metal with his mind, but Eric has had a hard life – and he is angry.

Eric can stop a bullet with his mind, but Xavier wants him to really test himself. He wants Eric to move a radar dish that is easily five miles away, something Eric does not believe he can do. He tries, looking strained both physically and mentally, but the dish is unmoved.

I know exactly how he feels.

But Xavier isn’t ready to quit. He says, very calmly, “I find that true focus lies somewhere between rage, and serenity.”

I knew the truth of it immediately. I had gone to the yoga studio seeking serenity in the midst of chaos. And Brooke was fighting breast cancer with her rage.

Even in this struggle, we are balanced between the yin and yang of peace and chaos, and balance is a finite point between them. I realized that despite everything, we are balanced, the two of us, in a struggle that is moving us forward. Bringing us closer.

But it doesn’t feel that way when it is happening.

I am standing in my warrior pose, my dristi  is over the tips of my fingers. There is a series of warrior poses, elegant and physically demanding. The body reaches, stretches, strong in both sides, balanced.  My knee is in a lunge, and right over my ankle. My right leg stretched straight out behind me, pressing into the outer edge of my foot. There is energy in this room. It’s a slow hum, and you can feel it. This space is where I fight against the rage that could easily take me, and this battle is intensely personal.

I am a warrior.

And while I have never been much good at mastering myself, I have noticed that things are changing. I am changing.

And Billy is sitting on his mat, legs crossed, the back of his hands are resting on his knees. He is talking, and I can sense frustration in him. He is telling a story. Billy is a carpenter by trade, and he is telling the class about a conversation that happened over lunch earlier that day. He was talking to some coworkers and Billy shared that he was also a yoga instructor. “Yoga?” they asked? “Yoga? What has yoga ever done for you?” I could hear their distain creep into his voice. I could feel it.

“If you know anything about guys that work in construction,” Billy says, “they can be kind of rough around the edges.” I know this. I worked for a while in cement when I was much younger.

I think it was the disrespect that was bothering him, but I think he was also troubled because he didn’t have a ready answer for them.

“What has yoga ever done for you?” he repeated.

Billy is an intuitive teacher. I see it in him. He uses what’s  real -the everyday experience- to illustrate his lessons, and this is one of the reasons I connected with him. It’s how I know I came to the right place. I’m an intuitive teacher, too.

I wanted to help him. To tell him to just look around. “What has yoga done for you?”

“Me,” I wanted to say. “Me – and everyone else that is sitting in this room. That’s what yoga has done for you.”

It’s an incredible gift, being a teacher. But you never really fully know the effect you have had on your students, or where those lessons will take them. You aren’t always meant to know.

And that’s your practice.

It is a Wednesday evening and I am sitting comfortably on my mat, my legs crossed and eyes closed, listening as the instructor, Barb, relates a parable to the class. She is an energetic woman with short, yellow-blonde hair. She speaks in a fast, rhythmic cadence, but the effect is calming and almost hypnotic. Ordinary people do amazing things in Barb’s class.

Tonight she is talking about a man looking for God.

I can relate.

He has climbed a high mountain in search of a Holy man, and when he reaches the small house at the mountaintop he is greeted at the door by a man who, after hearing the purpose of the journey, invites the traveller into the house and then quickly out the backdoor. Confused,the traveler tries to explain again why he has come. “You don’t understand,” he says. “I have journeyed all this way to see the Holy man.”

“And you have just met him,” the man replies, closing the door.

Barb explains the lesson saying, “If you cannot see the face of God in the next person you meet, stop looking.”

And we begin to practice.

That weekend I am buying tires at a small shop in Chandler, Arizona. The place is full of noisy, masculine energy. I have been coming  here for years, and the owner, Jose, is now my friend. The previous owner sold the business to Jose, who still works in his shop as the only mechanic. He greets all of his customers like old friends. He calls me “rich man” because I am there so much getting my old cars fixed on a teacher’s salary. He likes this joke. I found him by accident, which is often how we find the best things.

The universe is open for business.

This day I am watching a man try to hustle a deal on some tires. He bought a used pair from the previous owner and he is trying to tell Jose that the tires weren’t any good. That he got a bad deal. He is clearly waiting for Jose to offer him something, but Jose has his head under the hood of a car trying to ignore him. Everyone is trying to ignore him. I am reading the sign on the wall behind the man which states in big red letters that there is no warranty on used tires. I think about pointing this out to the man, who is clearly bothering Jose. I look at him thinking I will catch his eye – that I can give a knowing nod to the sign hanging almost over his head.

The cool morning light is filling the station and I am pleased with myself. I am not here to hustle tires, I have real business. And then I look at the man again, and I begin to see him. He is short with black, wavy hair, unkempt. His hands are pushed deep into the pockets of his pants that seem to have no color of their own. His clothes are worn, shabby. He is smiling uncomfortably, used to going unnoticed, to being ignored. And somehow I know that it isn’t really the tires that brought him here. He is looking for someone to acknowledge him – to see him- to hear his storyThe man catches my eye and I save the clever nod towards the sign that I had practiced in my mind. I smile back and the noisy clanking of metal and machinery seem to fade away and I can see the motes of dust in the air hanging between the two of us. I see him and nothing else, and I catch my breath, amazed. I hear Barb saying, “If you cannot see God in the face of the next person you meet, stop looking.”

I am standing in a used tire shop trying not to be noticed. There are tears welling up in my eyes and I look away, ashamed. I see myself in this man. I am this man, and I am wondering if anyone will ever see God in me.

And finally I am able to understand and embrace this word that ends our yoga practice – namaste. It means I see and acknowledge the light – the Spirit- within you.

We begin and end our practice with a chant of Om. It is the sound of the universe. You can hear it under the tumult that drowns out the simple awareness that we are spiritual beings in a world that is not material, but an expansive act of creation manifested first in the mind of God. I believe that when He first breathed life into man, the sound of that first breath was Om. And we have been breathing ever since, each breath flowing divinely from the first.

Yoga is breathing. Every movement flows from the mindful inhalation and expulsion of breath.

And I have been holding mine for a long time.

But not today.

Billy is talking, inviting us. “Yoga is a guided meditation.”

And my practice is one year old.

One year.

I look different. I feel different. And though I still lose my temper, I am not ever completely lost in it. I am always aware, at the very least, that I am failing a test, missing an opportunity. That I am still the angry yoga guy, but this, too, is only a transition into something else.

And I am in mountain pose – not asking this time, but counting blessings. Brooke is getting better. I see the old strength in her returning. Her PET Scan is clear. And while her cancer will always be a part of my practice – the place it all began- it no longer defines it. My son, who I haven’t spoken to in years sends me a letter through Facebook -an amazing gesture- and we begin to talk. My beautiful daughters are growing and changing before me and they fill my life with Hope. I was there at the birth of each of my children and saw each of them take their first breath – and the sound was a resonant Om.

I am seated on my mat, a sacred space, legs crossed, palms pressed to heart-center in prayer. My shirt is wet from sweat. The lights are lowered and Billy is talking.

“Together we can sit at the top of the mountain, until only the mountain remains.”

And I am breathing.

I pray here, in this time and space. I thank God for my life. For my family. My practice. I pray a blessing for Billy and Shosh, that this place will prosper.

The universe is open for business.

And in my mind I am stretching my arms across the room, past Williams Field Road, past Pecos Road and the 202.

Trying to throw my arms around the world.

Looking for God, in the next face I see.

Balanced between rage . . . and Serenity.

And that is my practice.

Namaste.

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