Never a lovely so real.

Millennium Park and skyline. Only a fraction of what we are.

Millennium Park and skyline. Only a fraction of what we are.

CP says I’m overly nostalgic about saying goodbye, that leaving a city doesn’t mean saying goodbye, that it’s just Boston, it’s not Mars. Maybe he’s right. The first time I left Chicago was 2002, and I was sure I’d never be back. But two years later, I came back and I stayed. He’s come and gone from Chicago five times at this point. Maybe it’s not leaving the city that makes me all tenderhearted and in my feelings; maybe Chicago has a pull on me like a magnet, and I can feel my iron core reluctant to move away.

*

The first time I visited Chicago, I was thirteen. I’m not sure why: I have an uncle who lives here, and maybe he was getting married or something. My mother worked for a university in Ohio, and was really keen on visiting Northwestern University so she could look at their marketing materials. (Man, if my mother had been born a millennial, y’all, we’d really have a serious, powerful tastemaker on our hands. Maybe not sex tape-celebrity, but she’d for sure be a YouTube/Instagram sensation. For all i know, she might still be, even though she was born in the ‘50s.) We went to a Blackhawks game—of all things. Because I’ll tell you what, I didn’t give a fuck about hockey. I think maybe I liked a boy who liked hockey? I have to believe that tickets to a Bulls game—which woulda been waaaaaay better—were too expensive and impossible to get, because it was the 90’s, and you know, Michael Jordan. I don’t know. I remember getting beer spilled on me, and not ever knowing where the puck was or what had happened, and trying really hard to have So Much Fun and not succeeding at it.

So we went to Evanston and walked around NU, and had a steak or something at Michael Jordan’s restaurant, and did some other things, I don’t know. But I remember falling in love with the city. I remember that from that point on, I wanted to get out of Ohio and move to Chicago. I was determined to get myself an apartment where I could see the city, preferably on Lake Shore Drive. Job? Husband? Family? Yeah, whatever; I knew I had to have this city.

*

Remember that time we took the Purple line downtown so we could catch the el out to the airport—I think we were going to visit mom and dad for Thanksgiving—and we passed by the Harold Washington Library, and I told you it was the most beautiful building I’d ever seen, and that it had to be the building where the opera took place, because it was just too majestic and amazing to be anything else?

And remember the time we got back all jet-lagged and wiped out after a red eye from LA, and saw the Sears Tower emerging from the passing fog, and we remembered what a great city it is we call home?

And remember how the 56 bus and the 22 bus and the 8 bus are always in the way whenever we bike commuted to school? And remember that woman we used to know who rode her bike to class who worked at that cafe in Edgewater who was killed by a driver while riding her bike. And her little sister being in class with us, writing about her sister’s death?

And remember that summer of Advanced Fiction and commuting to class and not being smart enough to bring a clean shirt, so every Tuesday and Thursday I was so sweaty and gross, and everyone in the semicircle was kind enough not to point it out?

Remember hearing my voice come out of the radio on WBEZ?

And remember the time we were in the Harold Washington library, after we’d moved away from Chicago, and then moved back, and caught that dude beating off on one of the public computers, and we were so grossed out, and you said to me, That’s how you know you’re home in Chicago, when you have a public masturbation experience?

And remember that yoga studio in Edgewater we used to go to, around the corner from CP’s place, when we didn’t want to go back to that sad, shitty hole we lived in, in Uptown, so we stayed with him, and went to that Sunday night community class, and that teacher who taught the half primary series after she’d talk and talk and talk and we’d think, when are we going to practice???

And remember reading Virginia Woolf out loud in that small Bucktown apartment, until finally those sentences began to make sense?

And remember reading all that student work in that even smaller Uptown apartment, and how even with all that work, it felt so good to be teaching?

And remember watching the 08 results roll in? And the ‘12 results with your friends in Rogers Park?

And the ‘16 results?

And remember the time we went out in Snowpocalypse with CP, bundled up like sausages, and traipsed around Rogers Park in so many feet of snow?

And remember the time we stood on Wacker Drive shouting and waving signs because we couldn’t be quiet anymore?

And remember the time we sat together and watched other artists gather in other spaces to discuss the epidemic of black boys and girls being gunned down by police?

And remember leaving CWHC, and finding CP at a coffee shop a few blocks away, and being afraid to tell him the truth because it might mean we’d break up, and him saying all he wanted was me?

Remember our wedding day, around the corner from that yoga studio where I (used to) teach, and how oddly, dreamily beautiful that day was. The lace and the paper and The Commodores and Sade and the singing bowl and ee cummings, and that scotch bar, and the sound of CP bellowing, “Where’s my wife?” as he came to take my hand for a dance, when Miles played Bill Withers “Just the Two of Us.”

Remember how you left my wedding without saying goodbye? Remember all the times you walked away from me?

Remember those early mornings at the studio, practicing together but each of us doing our own thing?

Oh. Remember all the laughter? So much laughter.

Remember how good we felt when I learned to track my own fertility, and how that process put in motion the next five years of my personal and professional life?

And remember that slow, fatiguing walk down the halls of the hospital, and from the NW Memorial door to the cab, and all those slow, fatiguing walks around Dearborn Park, during that summer of healing from surgery? And how many of us were there, how many folks rallied around to help take care?

And remember the day we graduated from Columbia, at the UIC Forum, and ran into that guy I used to like, and realized what a bullet I dodged by not dating him?

Remember Seal at the Lyric? And Jill Scott and Earth Wind and Fire at Northerly Island? And Russell Peters at the Chicago Theatre? Remember The New World Symphony, and Zakhir Hussein, and The Magic Flute, and Ophee et Eurydice, and Chick Correa, and JOHN LEGEND AND SADE AT THE UNITED CENTER?

And remember watching the sun rise over the lake. And the one and only Bears game we went to, and how we got dirty looks for talking about recipes at a football game, so I started talking loudly about dildos because I didn’t have a penis to talk about, and you kept telling me to be quiet and laughing and dying of embarrassment. And the way your breathing changes when you come around that bend on 90/94 and the city unfurls itself like a rising, sparkling Oz. And they way Hyde Park looks in the fall. And the brittle blue of the sky and the bright bite of the sunshine in January. And the first time we told a story at that wine bar that isn’t even on Webster Avenue anymore. And that accident at North and LaSalle and how scared we were because CP was out of town and we weren’t sure if we were injured but we knew we were fucking scared. And those fancy pens from The Peninsula, and watching the lions be wreathed for the Christmas holiday. And the apartment we were in when we found out Bin Laden had been killed. And all the literary events and festivals, and then when they went away. And the perfect blue of the studio walls, and watching the trains go by, and the farmer’s market at the Federal Plaza.

And John and Betty. And Louise. And Jim. And all the loved ones and the ancestors we’ve buried here. And all the love made and the friendships cultivated, all the listening and the shouting, all the tears and the breaths.

*

The greatest lesson I have learned here, from the citizens of this city, from my friends, students, teachers, and loved ones, is how important community really is. What an incredible blessing, to practice building community among you and with you. I think we can tell when someone is interested in meeting and being met in community, and when they’re not; I’ve learned that learning is a process that requires us to acknowledge our vulnerability. It’s scary to say, I don’t know, and we live in a culture that doesn’t reward it: just ask any woman or person you’ve ever heard say, maybe this is a stupid question. It’s a defensive reflex, and we say it because we don’t want to be judged for not knowing, even though not knowing is how we learn. So we enter a writing workshop or a yoga class or a wellness appointment, or any freaking context at all, with a chip on our shoulder, hoping we look smarter and cooler and stronger and more put together than we feel, and we defend against the offering we’re getting from “the person in charge” because to accept it means to acknowledge the weakness and the tenderness of our own ignorance. If we’re lucky, really, really lucky, we encounter a person who recognizes this defense, this posture, this palm up of “It’s okay, I’ve got this,” and they model humanity and struggle and learning well enough for us that we feel comfortable setting down our own defense so we can pick up wonder; determination; bravery; grace; discovery.

I’ve been really, really lucky. My learning path has been full of these people. The artificial hierarchy of learning aside, I’ve met so many folks who have allowed me to surrender to not knowing, and who have held me so well, and taught me to look around at the community of learners and be unafraid of looking silly or not knowing or making a mistake at 100 miles an hour. Thank you for that, Teachers. Thank you for teaching me the value of community in learning, and encouraging me to ground through my feet and push like hell, and to listen: to my breath, to the vibe of the room, to the voice within.

Man, I have also learned that not everyone is as interested in the beauty and connection that can be established when we practice vulnerability in community. I have had my heart broken, by folks I’m in community with, and by folks who have come and gone. Oh, I’m so tenderhearted; and while I believe that what passed between me and others couldn’t have gone any other way, I’m also grieved by the gulf that spawned between us, that made it impossible for us to connect, heal, and sustain meaningful relationship. So what does getting my heart broken teach me? That healing, restoration, reconciliation is not for the faint of heart: it requires us to be willing to change, to open ourselves up in a way that is scary and difficult, and that many of us are either unwilling to do what feels risky and scary, or we’re unable to, we’re blocked by our own fear of being hurt. Getting my heart broken has taught me to be willing to get my heart broken. It’s also taught me that there are people I know and have met who are willing to get into that scary, squishy, bloody tender place of healing with me. I’m so grateful for those people: they’ve recalled a faith in me that conflict can be resolved sometimes, that there are folks who are willing to grow and change together, even when it hurts.

*

Thank you, friends, loved ones, teachers and students, citizens of Chicago. Thank you for teaching me what it is to be a Midwesterner: friendly without being gullible; no time to suffer fools but free of craven ambition; human; approachable; feet on the ground, (vegan) cheese on the plate, and determination in the eye. Thank you for trusting me with your learning. Thank you for asking me hard questions, and forcing me to say, “I don’t know,” and to learn. Thank you for challenging me, because out of challenge comes clarity and I have learned so much about what matters and what does not from this clarity.  Thank you for pushing me: for teaching me that I can be scared, so long as I keep breathing and keep feeling, and that feeling the fear is not the end of me. Thank you for teaching me to listen to others’ fear, confusion, joy, delight, anxiety, struggle, and discovery. Thank you for teaching me to bear witness. Thank you for teaching me to listen to my own wisdom, to trust that what I want is true and real even if no one else is into it. Thank you for giving me the courage to look foolish. Thank you for teaching me to feel. Thank you for being so brave, and so determined, and sharing your triumphs and success with me. Thank you for walking away from me, and yes, thank you for being small and petty and narrow. Thank you for modeling the best and the worst of what we can be, so that I know I have a choice.

*

When I was a girl, every Sunday in church the pastor would stretch his hands over the congregation and utter this benediction

May the Lord watch between me and thee,

While we are absent, one from another.

This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

I haven’t thought of it in years, but seated before my last class this week, it came thundering back into my ears and was as instantly recognizable as the tinkle of the ice cream truck in summer. So if I can offer words of benediction, Chicago, let them be these:

I love you. I’m grateful for you. I’m sorry. Keep growing. And may the Creator of the Universe hold us both in joy, wonder, safety, and prosperity until we are together again. Mwah.

When the Spirit Sez Go

FullSizeRender.jpg

Y’all, I have been sitting on this blog post for weeks, WEEKS, trying to figure out how best to explain my choice? Decision? Calling? to move out of the city I call home and the life I’ve built to go BACK TO SCHOOL. It’s taken me a long time to talk about why I’m doing this, not because I was working hard on this, though I was, but because it’s one of few choices in my life that feels so certain and yet so… intangible. Ineffable. Non-verbal. There’s this story about how when a young man of God proposes to the woman he wants to be his helpmeet, he’ll say, “God has laid it on my heart that you and I should marry… God has stirred my spirit… I had a talk with God…” I used to roll my eyes at this kind of language, and I know men who talk like this (though fortunately for them, none of them ever proposed marriage to me). It seemed so condescending and belittling and deeply misogynistic, as if how a woman felt about a man was immaterial, because he had been in communication with The Almighty and they’d agreed marriage was best, so what she wants just didn’t matter. I though language describing an experience like this was bullshit.

But this process… it’s been so much about asking questions and then just listening. Being led. Trusting the echos of sounds and sensations in my chest, like my body were a tuning fork or a chasm, and the sounds of Mother Nature were ringing back to Her through me: This. Yep, this. Truly, not that other thing, this thing. Somewhere between a vibration and a magnet being pulled. I know this div school journey, this stepping deeper into a faith practice that I’d found so damaging and harmful, I just Know. It’s. Right.

So here’s the best I could do to explain How and Why. It’s not that great, and I’m not being all self-deprecating and weird: it’s not as clear as I want it to be, but it’s hard to be clear about this, at least right now. If you’re interested; if the idea that I want to get a master’s of Divinity, to deepen my capacity to minister and serve, to teach and learn, to feel, to hold space puzzles you; or if this makes perfect sense to you: you can read it. But if you ask me in the analog world, “Jess, why are you going to div school?”, and I wink and say, “Because God told me to,” maybe this will help you understand, and not roll your eyes at me.

The future is inevitable and precise, but may not occur. God lurks in the gaps.
— Jorge Luis Borges

I am twelve, in Wednesday night bible service, which is frankly just church in the middle of the week. The room is dark, but the dais is glowing, as if the carpet, the pulpit, the very air and light themselves were vibrating with the love of Christ. The associate pastor, Pastor Thompson, stands front and center. He’s over six foot with broad shoulders, a graying short afro, and a mustache in a gray suit and white shirt. His teenage son, Michael, is beside him. Michael has those eyeglasses that are wide and rectangular with the animal print stripe on top, and he wears blue jeans and a long sleeved polo shirt. Michael’s in high school. I mean, yeah, I’m only twelve, but I’ve started noticing boys, especially boys in high school. Tonight, beside his father, he’s trembling.

“Brothers and sisters,” Pastor Thompson begins, “God is good all the time. My son, you all know young Michael here, has something he wants to share with you.”

The small, mid-week congregation murmurs its affirmation: “Amen, yes, brother.” I roll my eyes. Another “Period of Discernment.” You couldn’t turn a full circle in a black church without hitting a young black man in a “period of discernment” that “God had called to preach.” It happened so often that it was tiresome.

But that’s not what he says. Instead, Michael bursts into sobs. I watch as he struggles to speak, confessing that he’s been sexually active, and gotten his girlfriend pregnant. He’s contorted with shame. Now, on its own, premarital sex and teen pregnancy, though perhaps a challenging life choice, is not a huge surprise; but this is a conservative black community in a very southern part of Ohio. On top of which, there are few things that church ladies love as much as juicy, humbling scandal. Around me I hear women kissing their teeth and gasping and exclaiming, “Lord have mercy.” Tears are streaming down Michael’s face and his shoulders are shaking.

Pastor Thompson put his arm around the boy, and started talking about confessing our sins and how God is able and just to forgive us, and blah blah blah. I wasn’t listening: I was stunned, not by the content of Michael’s revelation, but by why he was up here, sharing this with all of us. This showcase of Michael’s shame, this is what the adults wanted? This is what God wanted? He was humiliated. What was to be gained by making him disclose his sexual activity to the congregation? I felt stained, like we were bearing witness to something we had no business seeing, and I was alone in feeling that way; the adults were behaving like this is what it is to know and worship God. They were going to make him vomit up his horrible secret, and then muck about with him in it, in order to “free him from his sin.” There was no freedom here; there was only the bondage of another young person caught in the Puritanical net of socio-spiritual rule that did not answer for the connection between physical and spiritual desire. There was only the failure of abstinence as sexual education, and the fear of teen pregnancy that had not been enough to help two young people make a wise and safe decision, and the judgment heaped upon one of them out of that.

Of course Michael married this girl. Of course his father made him make an honest man of her, and truncated their lives so that there would be less talk, less shame. What else could he have done, in this circumscribed understanding of the world, and the laws of God?

*

I came home from college one spring break depressed. Severely depressed. Suicidal. A blanket shaped mound that bumped a slow, repeating circuit from the sofa to the bathroom to the refrigerator to the bed. I know why now: a few months back my parents had separated and then reconciled, and in the process had gutted my perception of what our family was, and refused to talk to me about it. It was like something awful had happened, like a hurricane had blown through our house and ripped up everything I knew to be true about my family, and they were pretending that nothing was wrong. That spring, continually shrinking my world view to fit theirs was literally making me crazy (ever seen Gaslight?). At the time, I didn’t know all this; at the time, all I knew was I wanted it all to end.

My mother stood in the doorway of my bedroom offering aid to me like putting prayers into the wind. I lay in bed, blanket over my head, trying to shut it all out. Pray, she said. You’ve got to pray this off of you, Jessica. If your faith in The Lord is strong enough, He’ll deliver you from this.

I turned my back to her and sighed, eyes filing with tears. It can’t be that simple, I thought to myself. If I just ask God for what I want and he gives it to me, and it makes me happy, that doesn’t make him God; it makes him Santa Claus.

*

“Women of God” had a very particular appearance and way in the tradition I was raised in. Women of God are inspiring and uncompromising; in someone else this would ring of entitlement and disdain, but they know that what they have and who they are has been Ordained By God, and so any attempt to criticize, even constructively, is just Satan. They have no time for Satan, nor the haters he sends at them. Women of God are coiffed and fragrant, in impeccable suits. No part of them betrays the process of these efforts, only the seamless and stunning product. Their ends are never split (though their hair is straight—there is No Room for the Natural on this journey) and their tips are never nicked. They have big, worn bibles they seem to have with them everywhere they go—church, meeting, gym, grocery store—their diaphanous, insect-wing thin pages dappled with color of innumerable time spent highlighting and underlining passages. They can quote Proverbs 31 to you, because they use it as words to live by.

Women of God say things like, Bless your heart, or Lord have mercy to disguise the sentiment of Shame on you. They say to you, I’ll pray for you, and they mean it as comfort, but they know it is laced around the edges with judgment.

Women of God don’t wear jeans with the crotch worn out. They don’t gamble, or shout. They don’t drink bourbon. They don’t say fuck. They don’t fuck. Their humanity is so dissolved into the magnificent perfection of the Lord that there is nothing struggling, or failing, or broken, or ordinary about them anywhere. And if there were, which there isn’t, they would fall on their knees in supplication, begging the Lord to do away with that sinful, disgusting, base part of them, and make them whole and white as snow.

White as snow being a metaphor of course—a lot of metaphors about God involve whiteness—and what these women really mean is that God would make them white as white Jesus. Because the Women of God I speak of are black Women of God. They are not markedly different than white Women of God, but the ways in which they are different are clear and meaningful.

Women of God sing hymns, they don’t chant. Their mantra is “Jesus loves you”, not anything in some foreign language. Their body, though a gift from God, is not a means to God; it is the lowest part of them that must be overcome in order to reach God. Their bodily desires, appetites, sensations are… inappropriate. Distasteful. Sinful.

*

I grew up listening to Focus on the Family. In Touch (which frankly, sounds a bit pervy out of context.) The Urban Alternative (wow, I still can’t believe that name). And occasionally, Unshackled: I remember it was recorded by the Pacific Garden Mission, and never, ever thought that I’d wind up living less than a mile from the mission (which has pretty awful reviews for treating folks badly, and exchanging proselytizing for shelter and food, I cannot imagine this is how Jesus would have wanted to be treated, or how he would have treated others), and would regularly run, walk, or drive past it. Jonie Eareckson Tada and Charles Stanley and Chuck Swindoll. Those of you familiar with Christian radio will recognize these names and programs as bastions of evangelical broadcasting from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and for those of you who don’t know, it was just a lot of conservative Christian radio. Why did I listen to all this? Not by choice: because the adult who was driving almost always had control over what was playing: the captain of the vehicle was also the DJ of the car tunes.

I look back on that time and think now that maybe my parents were unhappy a lot, unhappy about going to work about coming from work, just miserable, and were clinging to this radio—even with all of its conservatism and piety and seriousness—as a kind of bastion or talisman to steer them through the day. Even as much as I disliked that radio (can you imagine being a teenager, and wanting to listen to TLC and Aaliyah and Destiny’s Child, and what passed for hiphop on the radio in Southern Ohio and instead listening to preaching all the time? ohmigod, eye roll. as if), I can imagine that some of that programming must have held a similar space to podcasts or audio books, or even daily affirmations that some of us listen to now. The red/green/blue line commute is lousy, but it makes it easier to listen to Snap Judgment/2nd Story/This American Life/Radiolab/On Being/Fresh Air. So Adult me gets it.

Still. 15-year-old Jess is so mortified by all of that conservative programming (propaganda?…) and not just because it was misogynist and narrow-minded and exclusive and ultimately showed itself to be incredibly harmful to me and other people I love. But because it just felt so old. So stodgy. So out of touch.

My point is, I grew up surrounded by conservative Christianity: in the media I (reluctantly, snarkily) consumed, in the churches I attended, in the rules I obeyed in the house I was raised in. It was all around me.

Jesus never came for me. At least, the blue-eyed, white Jesus who spoke in dulcet tones and wore a halo with his shift, and allowed himself to be crucified as easily as letting the lady behind him at the deli counter order her half-pound of turkey first: that Jesus? I don’t know him: only son of a wrathful, vengeful, law-abiding, demanding, smiting, plague-inflicting deity called THE LORD. That’s the Jesus that was packaged and handed to me in school and in church and on the radio. He seemed so irrelevant, to the suffering I was experiencing in a small, Midwestern city full of small minds and racist tendencies, to the demand I was hearing from others that to love God was to behave Like This toward These People because They were Not Us. That Jesus was not interested in consensus or community or justice or even love; he was interested in control and separateness and judgment. Not. My Scene.

*

I don’t remember the precise moment that I was handed the concept Tantra as more than kinky, hippie sex or black magic from the far east. I don’t know which teacher it was, or whose class I was in, or what we were doing or had been doing. The fact that I can’t lay it at the feet of a particular human being reminds me that it wasn’t perhaps an idea located in, or extending out of, someone’s ego; perhaps it was the Divine clarifying itself to me, the same message being conveyed over and over through different voices; perhaps it was the Great Transcendent recognizing itself in my tiny spark of Great Immanent and moving closer to itself, a great union of Purusha and Prakriti. When I think of it now, I think of the frog in the slowly warming pot of water, who doesn’t feel that the standard temperature and pressure around it are changing. I remember realizing, and I continue to every day, that my manifest experience isn’t a hurdle to overcome so that I can “get to God”, and that the designated “impure” thoughts, actions, relationships, and behaviors don’t put me far from God. What I’d been taught, and believed, was that my body was a source of shame, sinfulness, and profanity.

This is not a story about how Tantric yoga saved my life, although it very well may have. I have banged my shins and run face-first into some of the failings of yoga, because, like so many systems in our world, it is made of people, and people fail. I have witnessed so many yogis who love the high that yoga gives them—part endorphins, part-spiritual materialism, part-exclusive community, and I’ve been that yogi many, many times—and who don’t consider at all that the practice might have ramifications outside their personal practice. Let me say this plainly: I am routinely disappointed by the volume of folks I meet who contend that their practice is vertical—between them and The Universe/The Divine/whatever non-threatening, vague language they use to describe what they’re doing—and not horizontal, that is not between them and The Divine they encounter in their partner, the person who slices their deli turkey or serves their pour-over or cuts their grass/paints their nails/crosses their border/is killed by someone “serving” and “protecting” their streets. So I’m not looking at Tantra as the savior of what I know are the failings of Christianity, as it’s manifesting today. And: I know that each practice has something to give, to learn from, the other, and that there’s a place where immanence and incarnation and connection and relationship live in both traditions. And that they can and should compliment each other.

What I’m learning is that shame and sin are ideas created to manipulate us into behaving differently, and profanity is the home of the Divine as much as the Sacred is. That continuum that pits Sacred and Profane at opposite ends is false.

*

It has taken so much time. So. Much. Time. for me to begin to figure out what it is to witness the parts of Christianity I was raised with as beautiful. I had to pull hard to strip away the rules, the fear, the difference between theology and social belief. Truth is, it’s still there: I feel like I’m looking at a great fabric, the fabric of what I know about existence and community and seizing a thread and saying, “this! This is right. This other color right here wrapped around it? This is junk. Pull that out and ditch it.” I am continuing to look critically at what I know (and discover) Christianity to be, and ask why it’s that way. I’m doing the same with yoga. My hope is to find the place where both of these life practices are worn together, and where their threads are moving int he same, complimentary direction: a direction that loves mercy, pursues justice, and abides in the wonder and delight of being diving beings in service of and to Divinity, which is to say in service of and to one another. I’m so excited.

I promise I’ll continue to say fuck, and to drink bourbon, and to chant, and sweat, and always look not quite put together. I promise not to judge you, or condescend to you. I promise to laugh with you, and weep with you, and suffer with you.

Let’s Divine together.

Fire Up February: Week 2 Bonus

Vigorous poses can be really useful in our practice. In our world that always seems to demand so much of us, sometimes it’s actually really inspiring to push our own limits, step outside our comfort zones, and see what we’re made of. The poses I’ve included in Week Two are some of my favorites, and also those that I find most challenging. It’s as much a challenge for me to showcase and demo these postures as it is to practice them.

An important note to new yogis: these poses will likely require modification, especially if they’re new for you, so don’t feel like you have to work beyond your own capacity. If you’re not sure how to modify a posture, ask! Ask your teacher, or post a comment inquiring, and I’ll make sure to post a modification or simplification for a pose.

This week’s bonus content is a practice that can, let’s say, shake things up. Maha bandha, meaning The Great Seal, or Great lock, is a practice that requires both a pause after inhale and after exhale. In this practice, you use mulabhanda, uddiyanabandha and jalandarabandha all at the same time. It’s important that you know each of these practices in order to put them all together. My teacher would say that if your life is feeling stressful and anxious, this is a practice to hold off on; but if your life is smooth and easy, this practice over time will help you unlock some things, shake ‘em up. It’s not a suitable practice for pregnant people, nor for folks with high or low blood pressure, or ulcers, recovering from abdominal surgery six months or less, or with other stomach issues.

How To

  1. Take a comfortable seated pose, like siddhasana or padmasana. If you’re sitting with the shins crossed, take some height under the hips, so you have as much of the shins on the floor as possible.

  2. Place hands on knees or thighs. Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose, pause briefly at the top of inhale, and exhale powerfully and completely.

  3. At the bottom of the breath, pause. Draw the chin in and down; draw the navel in and up, expanding the base of the ribcage and sucking in the navel; lift the pelvic floor in and up toward the center of the body.

  4. Pause with the breath held out for as long as you’re able to without straining.

  5. Release mulabhanda so pelvic floor softens, uddiyana bandha so belly softens, and jalandhara bandha in this order. When your chin is lifted, inhale fully. Exhale.

  6. This is one round. Take a normal, deep breath or two between rounds before the second round.

  7. Try three rounds to start. Once you feel comfortable with three rounds, increase until you’re doing nine rounds.

This practice is a powerful energetic one, but is by no means for beginners. Please consult with a trusted teacher if you have any questions or concerns about it.

Fire Up February: Week 1 Bonus

The poses featured in Week 1 of #FireUpFebruary on my Instagram feed are, I think, Essentials: not so flashy or new, they may not make the most compelling inversion or arm balance yoga photos, but I’ve included them because they’re important, especially to and for those of us who are practicing yoga not just for its exercise benefits, but for its systemic benefits. Asana can be supportive for the body, and mind, and can prepare the subtle body for the seated practices of dharana and dhyana. I’ve included these because they’re standbys, shapes you can return to again and again, and count on them to meet you where you are, and also show you something new.

The same is the case with this week’s bonus content. I think it’s perhaps NOT an accident that we’ve begun this yoga challenge the same week that my sweet home Chicago has seen some of the coldest days of Winter so far. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been doubling up on my practices that keep harsh winter fingers from taking hold too much inside me. Warm drinks, warm, spiced foods, and my absolute fave Ayurveda practice, abhyanga, are all keeping me going right now. I’m also doing my best to stay a bit mobile, so I don’t get frozen solid in any particular place.

The pranayama practice to share this week is also one of my favorites. Nothing too complicated: a smooth, deep, long breath that is warming, especially when doing while practicing asana. This breath gives your mind something to listen to, a place to rest, and if you pay close attention, it can tell you what you need to know about your level of intensity in practice, and whether or how it needs to change.

That’s right, I’m talking about our good friend Ujjayi breath.

In the video below I’ve broken it up into a few pieces. A couple of quick notes:

  1. this is, generally speaking, a safe breath for most folks to practice. Pregnant folks, just be sensitive to how it feels: especially as your pregnancy advances and the baby grows, the baby can begin to make your breathing feel constricted and inhibited. Take whatever kind of breath will allow you to feel like you’re getting enough.

  2. If this practice is new to you, please read the instructions first. Then try watching the video, and then watch it again, this time following along. This breath should not feel like a gasp. Imagine your throat like a large pipe that your breath is flowing through. Your goal is to narrow that pipe by gently engaging the muscles around it, not to close it off completely. Think, the soft hiss of a Chicago radiator, not a pearl-clutching gasp of shock and horror.

  3. I often hear folks struggle with this breath on the inhale: the exhale sounds clear and soft and smooth, and the inhale sounds short and stuffy. Students familiar with this breath, and in particular “advanced” students, should work to make the inhale sound the same and last the same amount of time as the exhale.

  4. As is always the case with pranayama, if this practice makes you dizzy, nauseous, or anxious, STOP. Release the practice and breathe normally.

DISCLAIMER: the sound quality in this video isn’t fantastic, because, surprise! you can hear my heater (and maybe my refrigerator) on in the background. Hopefully I’m close enough to the mike that you can hear my breath too.

Ujjayi How-To

  • Begin this practice in a comfortable seat. Allow your breath to move normally, watching it come and go.

  • Take a normal breath in through both nostrils, and exhale with a “HAAAAAAA” sound. Imagine you were trying to fog up a mirror or window an inch in front of your face. Try that breath three times. It should sound like a whisper.

  • Then, try to produce that same “HAAAAAAAA” sound as you breathe in; on exhale, close the mouth, and allow the breath to come through the nostrils. Try that breath three times. Make sure to close the breath with each exhale, to ensure that your mouth and throat don’t dry out too much. Feel free to have a sip of water if the throat is feeling dry.

  • Now, put the two together: take an inhale through the mouth “HAAAAAAA” and an exhale the same way. Take another breath in, and as you exhale through the mouth, close the lips and see if you can produce that same whispering sound in the throat, even though the lips are closed and you’re breathing through the nose. Now, try to produce that sound on the inhale as well. Imagine you were still whispering in the throat, but the air is moving in and out through the nostrils. The sound will get softer, but you should still be able to hear it.

  • Continue to practice this breath as long as you are comfortable. When you’re ready to end, release the breath, notice the effect of the breath on the body and mind, and then gently blink the eyes open.

This breath is so soothing to the nervous system. It lengthens and deepens the inhale and exhale, sloooowing thiiiiinngs dooooown. It also warms the body gently. You can practice this technique sitting up or lying down, and it’s particularly helpful in asana practice. A slow, deep ujjayi breath in can help build and stoke your prana, and a long, smooth ujjayi breath out can help release tension, anxiety, and a sensation of stuckness. It’s a great breath to use when practicing with menstrual cramps or PMS symptoms, because it has not just a physical but also a mental effect on the body/mind. Remember, your breath is the quickest way to assess and change the quality of your thought. Ujjayi breath is a technique that will leave you feeling calm, quieted, and can also help stoke and cultivate a quality of strength and capacity.

Fire Up February

Okay. It’s 2019, but the glitter of a new year is all rubbed off, and the winter and the routine has set back in. We had massive high hopes for what we’d accomplish and how much we’d change this year, and maybe we’re stuck in the same habits and distractions as before. I get it. Maybe you wanted to try something new, and you got scared and chickened out. I’m not here to judge you about it, I did for sure. But I do have an offering for us that might restore a bit of confidence and delight in ourselves, that will teach us to care for ourselves because self-care is a joy, not a burden or a to-do item. If winter’s starting to grind on you, and you want a resource to help you find your way through it, I hope you’ll join me for #FireUpFebruary.

IMG_4133.PNG

Fire Up February is a month-long yoga challenge I’m hosting on Instagram centering how yoga and pranayama can be a tool for supporting women’s health. Starting on February 1, I’ll post a short how-to video of postures, and though the sequence is designed to support women at various stages of health and in their cycle, the postures and practices are suitable for anyone who’s looking for some asana inspiration.

The schedule breaks down like this:

Week One February 1-7 Essential Postures

These are poses that are good for anyone at any time of the month, and are accessible from beginners to seasoned yogis. These poses offer balance, strength, poise, flexibility, and expansion.

Week Two February 8-14 Vigorous Postures

These are poses that are more challenging or sophisticated: arm balances, inversions, deeper backbends, and postures that put the spine through more a complex range of motion. Newer yogis attempting these poses should listen to their body, work slowly, and seek the guidance of a seasoned and trusted teacher if any questions or concerns arise.

Week Three February 15-21 Prenatal Postures

While Week One postures are safe for expectant people, these poses are especially modified for pregnant folx. Be sure to have a wall nearby, a sturdy, non-slip chair, and a block or two for extra support.

Week Four February 22-28 Restorative Postures

These poses are for anyone who needs a little extra rest or softness. You’ll find they use more props than some of the others—bolsters or pillows, blocks and blankets, and a chair. While in the video I’m in them for only a brief moment, you should feel free to linger in them as long as you like.

Bonus Material

In addition to the postures you’ll find on IG, every week, I’ll be posting a brief how-to video featuring a pranayama or dhyana (mental concentration) technique here that pairs with its corresponding week. So plan to check back here every week for additional content to help support your practice.

How can you stay involved? Comment on the videos with questions, concerns, victories, or lessons as you practice these poses with me, or comment here weekly on the pranayama techniques. Tag me and use the Hashtag #FireUpFebruary when you upload content on IG. These are all ways to connect with other folx who are interested in using this practice to support their physical, mental, and emotional health.

I hope this February challenge gives us the chance to dig deep and slough off some of the winter doldrums that can come with the snowy, cloudy days. I hope it can teach us all to listen deeply to our bodies. Rather than pushing with our egos, or with our sense of obligation, I hope we can unroll our mats, and if only for a few minutes a day tune in to our bodies and our needs. What a gift to have a body you can take care of: let’s treat it like the marvelous, complex, miraculous place that it is.

Come with me.