Watch What Happens

My skin is brown, my eyes are clear I hear your voice, I see your fear I bear witness to your injustice What do they call me? They call me Sister

My skin is brown, my eyes are clear

I hear your voice, I see your fear

I bear witness to your injustice

What do they call me? They call me Sister

Friday, August 18, 2017

9:35 AM

I am walking home from the yoga studio. South Wabash Avenue is quiet: food delivery trucks dropping off for the weekend rush, late commuters, nannies walking babies, dog walkers and me. I don’t notice the traffic on the street: I’m thinking about the rest of my day. I am deep in thought when I hear the buzzing, angry horn of a police cruiser. I plug my ears, unsure how long the sound will last. One of those new Dodge Chargers, big, black, masculine, beautiful, pulls over and the SUV cruiser behind it with the blue lights flashing.

This could go one of several ways.

I am stunned when the door of the Charger flies open wide and the driver steps out. He is like his car: big, black, masculine, and beautiful. Maybe 6’2”, 190 pounds, in dark pants, a blue t-shirt and sandals. He has short hair and a face that would be handsome if he were smiling, if instead his face weren’t contorted with something—agony, rage, regret. He is holding in his hand a short cup of red fluid, he’s calling it juice.

It’s going to go that way.

I wonder, is he famous? An athlete I should recognize? Is that why he’s gotten out of the car? Maybe he wants to show Johnny Law, hey, you just pulled over a famous guy, and even though I’m black and male and we all know what that means when it comes to black men and the police, maybe it doesn't have to go down that way. Can we just let this go, bygones be bygones. Can I sign a ball for you or something for your grand-kid and we can call it a day?

The officer is white (duh), older, male, in a CPD uni. He and the driver are speaking over one another, the officer trying to pull him over to the hood of the cruiser, the driver demanding to know why he’s been pulled over, insisting he’s done nothing wrong.

The officer is barking into his walkie talkie on the shoulder of his uniform in a voice high and tight with fear, “Traffic stop gone bad, I need a car!” and he’s shouting out addresses on the block we’re standing on, between 14th and 16th street, 1520 South Wabash, 1516 South Wabash. I keep walking, but I’m watching openly. A white man walking a small dog has his headphones in, and he’s watching too. Once I’m at a distance that makes me feel safe, I stop walking and continue to watch.

I’m unsure if I should be watching. I want to see what this cop is going to do to this brother. There is a part of me that wants to give this man his privacy, too, though. No first responder I have ever dealt with—paramedic, fire department, and especially police—has been human when doing their job. They’ve been “professional”, whatever that means, they’ve followed protocol; but their own humanity, and the humanity of folks they’re dealing with especially, goes right out the window. If I were being harassed on the street, would I want people gawking at me? Or would I want as few witnesses as possible.

I turn to go. The ink on my arm lights up, I feel it burning my skin, and in an answer to my question, the driver calls my name. “Sister!” he shouts, “Sister!” I turn and we lock eyes. “Watch him!” he says to me. And I do. This is what I said I would do, and he’s asked me to, so I watch the man shout at the officer and the officer shout at the man. I am not close enough to see if the officer is going to plant anything on him or in his car, and I do see him finger a holstered weapon on his belt, but nothing comes off of it.

Now the white man walking the dog is involved. “Sir, I think you should obey the officer,” he says. The driver protests, he doesn’t see any reason why he should be touched, he hasn’t done anything wrong.

(I roll my eyes inwardly. Of course, another white guy has to get involved, I think. History is full of examples of success for black folks listening to the police. Excuse me sir, you dropped your privilege.)

“Sir,” he repeats in a low, measured tone, “I’m a lawyer, and you have a legal right to defend yourself in court. But if you resist or disobey the officer you’re going to make it harder.”

No one is listening to each other. The driver can’t hear the white man with the dog because the cop is shouting at him. “Hey, I need a lawyer, you a lawyer? I need a lawyer,” the driver repeats to the white man with the dog.

“Stop trying to touch me, man, I’m trying to drink my juice!” the driver is shouting. “I just got outta jail, I ain’t do nothing wrong! He can’t even tell me what I did!”

He can probably say something, but whether or not what he says is true, well, it doesn’t really matter at this point, does it.

I watch as CPD descend on the man, as if they have been lurking in the shadows waiting for this moment. Two cops, four, ten, thirteen, sixteen.

I am not exaggerating.

Another cruiser pulls up, and another; a police wagon. (a fucking police wagon. For one guy.) Plain-clothes cops, more unis: like ants on sugar, like roaches, like mice. Quietly, swiftly, they grab this man. The cuffs are out now. They force him to bend at the waist where he puts down whatever he was drinking.

There is an ancestral, generations-old, centuries-old, crushing and painful familiarity about what I am witnessing. Some part of me knows the spectacle of white men in a knot wrestling with one black man who just wants to do his life. I’m not sure I can feel my body. I’m not sure I can breathe. My arms are reflexively crossed over my belly. I am scared and angry.

By the time the driver is in handcuffs and being led toward some police vehicle, thirteen of them have actively participated in subduing him, with a cadre of other cops pointing and barking and attempting to look official. Thirteen police officers. To subdue one black man with the nerve to try to be free.

No one has been shot. No one has been tased. This is not how this should go, but at least, today, he is still alive. For now. He just got out of jail, he says. And now he’s likely going back.

Now there are statements, clean up, a tow truck for the Charger in the street, and there will be paperwork, and now I turn to go. I don’t want to talk to cops. I’m not going to help an effort to rob another black man of his freedom.

At the end of the block, a blond-haired white woman with a sweet voice tries to stop me. “I’m sorry to bother you,” she says, “but do you know what happened?”

I shake my head at her. I know if I open my mouth, I will scream at her; and she didn’t do anything but miss the action, and she just wants someone to tell her a story.

It won’t be me.

When I sit down to write this, I am still shaking.

It’s not my story. I am not the story here. The story is how hard it is to be free when everywhere you go the system is designed to rob you of your freedom. You can’t even drive down the street and enjoy a drink without being threatened and oppressed and incarcerated.

Well, some of us can.

There are lots of ways this could have gone. It could have gone a lot worse, but it could have gone a lot better.

I bet the officer would say he followed the rules.

I don’t know the rules. But I can tell you this:

They. Don’t. Work.

 

The Breaking of the Shell

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On weekends I prepare for a work day. I rise early, I try to sit quietly, when there’s enough time, I eat a breakfast—usually liquid, so I don’t run the risk of it backing up on me during inversions or uddiyana kriya—that will sustain me through the morning, and I get dressed and walk the half-mile from my home to the yoga studio where I practice and teach. I plan what sequence I’ll be providing, I scribble a couple of fast notes, and then I practice. I almost always take class. It’s hard sometimes for folks, even my partner, to conceive that a yoga class is a part of my work day, but on this day it is. This is one of few days where my schedule permits me to study with my teacher before I have to teach, and I can think of few things better as a means of preparation for teaching. Joining his class allows me to practice without having to think so hard, to hold my own space: I get to surrender myself to his sequence and his energy, and contribute to, and ride, the wave of prana that I’m creating with others in the room. I get a chance to get my mind right, and to relax the clinching or desire of being able to do a pose well enough. When something pressing comes up, like a day-job meeting or a family obligation, I’ll sacrifice that early class, but I hate doing so. Not practicing before I teach changes the class I’m able to provide on that day.

One Saturday morning, I arrived early. The studio is often a popular place on weekends, buzzing with laughter and gossip from folks who have the time to come out and socialize before and after their practice. I found a friend in a quiet corner, and sat down beside him. As we started talking, I began to take my jacket off, and noticed, quite out of the blue, that my neck was tingling, just this side of an ache. It was as if I’d somehow gotten whiplash in the ten seconds it had taken me to unzip my burgundy hoodie: in 360 degrees, my neck was buzzing. It wasn’t quite pain, but it wasn’t pleasant, as if it was trying to decide if it wanted to hurt.

As surprising as it was, I kept chatting with my friend for a while, and then prepared for class. As we began, the tingling began to change, to deepen and sharpen. My muscles began to tighten, and during class my range of motion became smaller and smaller.

During the practice, my teacher coached us as we moved from chaturanga dandāsana to urdva mukha śvanāsana, “Press the tops of the feet down, open the heart, let the head drop back so you’re upward facing…” I tried it, and my body, clear as a bell, responded, nah girl, we ain’t doin’ that shit. My neck gripped, my traps clenched, and I couldn't move. The voice of my body was so clear, I looked around the room,  sure someone else had heard it. But the rest of the room continued onward, tucking toes under, lifting hips up, and lengthening spines into adhō mukha śvanāsana.

I suppose I should count myself lucky that my body sometimes communicates so clearly. But on this day it just felt obstinate. The next time we did a sun salutation, I attempted to jump back, and as safely and as lightly as I landed, I felt a tremor run up my spine and my neck spasmed. Okay, no more jumping today, I said to myself with a frown. I tried to shake my head gently and release tension, but even that was painful. By the end of class, the pain was real. I could barely turn my neck to look over one shoulder, lift my eyes to the ceiling, or let my chin drop toward my chest. Everything had seized up. I was angry. I really wanted a strong practice, wanted to enjoy the wide range of movements I move my body through, even when in my teacher’s class, I often find myself banging into my own limitations. I really wanted to feel like I was doing something! But the pain in my body restricted that range of motion to quite a narrow path.  When my teacher put us in śavasana, I stepped out of the room and took a quick dose of Arnica Montana. I returned to the classroom and rolled up a blanket behind my neck, hoping that the extra height would give my neck a place to loosen and relax a little gripping. No dice. I taught the next class class that way, unable to swivel my head in any direction, feeling tense, tight, achy, and struggling to breathe deeply.

This is an old pain, a pain I’m familiar with, that I’ve struggled with on and off for close to 20 years. I’m not sure when it began. I wish I could chalk it up to something, like a car accident, or a traumatic injury, but nothing I’ve experienced is so profound that it would make sense. I have noticed that when I feel overheated, or when find myself in situations of conflict, when I feel my buttons of abandonment or overwhelm being pressed, that it tends to flare up. I used to wish for healing, to be free forever of this pain. It makes it difficult for me to practice headstand and feel safe. I’m not so worried about whether or not I can balance; instead I’m worried about taking too much weight on my head and doing myself significant, permanent damage. My relationship to this pain is enduring, for better or for worse.

I’d love to be able to tell you that the practice of yoga teaches you to work with your body as an ally, a partner in your life and how you move through the world, and not as a resource to be mined, or an object of oppression, or an obstacle to manipulate into submission, to overcome. I’d love to tell you that, but I'm not sure it's true. When I look closely around the classrooms I practice in, I see some bodies that are longing, that are striving, working as hard as possible. Some of us come to yoga seeking healing from pain, looking to build strength and grow our capacity. For some of us, the physical practice of yoga is another place where we push push push, go go go, demand 110%. There is no ease in this kind of practice, there is only effort.

Pain has been a big part of my practice. I don’t have any complex diagnoses, I don’t have an autoimmune disorder. But I also have been taught to demand excellence from my body. I have learned that with enough effort, stringency, demand, and the sheer, brutal power of my will, I can make my body what I want it to be. This doesn’t feel like an accurate context for knowing my body. My body doesn’t like it when I demand from it; it tends to rebel. I’ve tried to demand postures from my body, like Urdvha Dhanurāsana or Pincha Mayurāsana, I wind up with injury that causes me to back off and rest. But this demand from the body is what our world teaches us: our body is under our control, and is an object to be controlled, rather than a partner in our existence. As a woman, my body is not a temple, nor a manifestation of the divine that I can explore and enjoy for all the things it can do, all the ways it can change, not a gift for me to enjoy and share as I deem right. It is a tool for attracting attention--usually from men, whether or not I’m attracted to them, or even heterosexual—and it’s a tool I have limited ownership over; it's an incubator for breeding the next generation, and if I can't breed, then what use am I? How I adorn my body dictates how others treat me, and if they treat me like shit it must be because I did something that indicated that I wanted to be treated like shit, that I thought I deserved to be treated like shit. This can include walking, smiling, not smiling, drinking in public, drinking in private, laughing, being alone, being with friends, wearing short skirts, long skirts, being covered from head to toe, being single, being married, being young or old, being poor, being wealthy, being friendly, being nice, being mean, being quiet, basically just being.

Marginalized bodies, bodies living with or recovering from trauma, bodies dealing with disease, sometimes these aren't the safest, easiest bodies to live in. But when we are able to bring our bodies to the mat, without judgment, with observation, with one eye on discipline and one eye on compassion, we can learn and grow to love ourselves more deeply and completely, and to care for ourselves in a way that serves us continuously.

I want to move my body with delight and safety and ease through the world, but sometimes it's hard to; sometimes the threat to my ease and safety feels outside my body, and sometimes it feels inside. Wrestling my mind away from judgment and self-loathing can be just as challenging as being brave enough to feel free to walk down the street. (Because, this is not an exaggeration, some days, it really does feel threatening as a woman of color, to walk down the street. I resent it, and I demand the right to be free in my country, in my city, in my neighborhood; and I also feel, at times, at risk.) Resisting the external demand I feel on my body, and working with the pain that I feel, sometimes my practice changes shape. I can't always count on being able to unroll my mat and throw down: sometimes I come to practice hurting, and I don't want to push through the pain. I want to work with it, because it may be temporary, but so is ease. 

If your practice is anything like mine, sometimes you have trouble staying present in it. Sometimes you get distracted thinking about what else you have to do today, or (my personal fave) what you're going to eat when this is over, or maybe how that last pose went for you, or what pose is coming next. Pain brings you immediately to the present moment. it won't let you move away, it won't let the balloon of your mind drift away from the steady grasp of your hands into the sky or down the road. It holds you present, it Keeps You Here. 

I tell students not to practice to the point of pain, not to push through pain, and I mean it. When something hurts me, I don't want to do it, and I believe that if we blind ourselves to the messages of our body (I'm hungry, I have to pee, Ouch!), that we position ourselves for greater and more lasting discomfort, dysfunction, and potentially, disease. Practicing with pain is something different. In a monograph of guidelines and practices written by the Ashtanga Vinyasa Ann Arbor community, led in some part by Angela Jamison, she writes, "It's a practice, not a performance. Modify for pain or fatigue if they actually arise. You might be surprised: they may have just been in your head."  

(Just as a sidenote, I need to take a moment here and totally fangirl over Angela Jamison. Though I'm familiar with Primary Series (and respect it deeply) I'm not an Ashtangi, but if I were and if she'd have me, I'd make an annual pilgrimage to Ann Arbor to practice with her. I have learned so much from her about practice, about paying close attention and what we do and why, and I LOVE the way she writes about the intersections of yoga, economy and society. Her work consistently asks me to step up my game. Deep, deep bow.)

She continues, "....For what it is worth to you, here is my personal practice. When I have been injured or ill, I still roll out the mat. I sit, lie or gently move, focus on the breathing, remain calm, and feel the energy in my body. This (1) maintains the practice habit. It also (2) focuses attention on perceiving energetic and physical experience, teasing this apart for emotional reactions, and thus significantly alleviating my suffering. (Shinzen Young says Suffering = Pain x Resistance.) This practice of coming to the mat even when there is great difficulty is (3) often fascinating, and sets a new baseline for future gratitude for my body. I sense that (4) doing this helps me recuperate faster. Studying pain with curiosity and care, not pushing to try to make it disappear: this is what I mean when I saw that it is OK to practice during injury or illness."

This is the energy I try to bring to my practice when I'm hurting, and though it complicates my life, I'm grateful for pain because it has lessons to teach me: about how to rest, how to practice, and how to listen closely. When I'm not hurting, I take ease in my body for granted and pay less attention and push more. 

(I've been talking pretty exclusively about physical pain in this context, and it's important to acknowledge that emotional, mental, and psychic/spiritual pain is as real--and as prevalent--as achy knees and shoulders. They're often connected to one another. I highlight physical pain in this post because it's what's been taking my attention most clearly. I think perhaps the same kind of discipline, compassion and curiosity could yield meaningful results when dealing with pain located in the mind, heart, or soul. It often has for me. )

All this to say that the body is not a traitor, even when it behaves in ways we wish it wouldn't. Your illness or injury is a meaningful teacher just like mine is for me. So don't be mad that your body won't do what you wish it would. Marvel at what it will do. Be grateful for what it has to say, and listen closely. Work together. Work cooperatively. Be patient. Release attachment to results and for gawd's sakes who cares if you can do dwi pada sirsasana. Can you spend a week with your family without wanting to kill them your yourself; can you acknowledge your privilege and use it for someone else's good; can you say you're sorry; can you forgive? When these practices come with more ease and less effort, we'll know the yoga is doing something.

 

And a woman spoke, saying, "Tell us of Pain.

And he said:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. 
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain. 
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy; 
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields. 
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief. 
Much of your pain is self-chosen. 
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self. 
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity: 
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen, 
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears. 

Kahlil Gibran, "On Pain"

Happy Birthday

I never take good pictures of myself. Call it, clavicle with malas and earring.  

I never take good pictures of myself. Call it, clavicle with malas and earring.  

Today I am thirty-seven years old.  

This is not a post about aging, about "older and wiser", or coming to grips with a changing body, or what it means to finally begin to feel how time speeds up--and cycles--the older we get.  

This is a post about safety.  

The first, clearest memory I have of feeling unsafe I was maybe eight. My parents and I had just moved into the house I grew up in, an unremarkable but comfortable split level home in the northern suburbs of Cincinnati. It was a product of the post WW2, white-flight baby boom, it had the avocado-split pea soup-green accents and appliances of the '70s, and even a few stains from past pets lingering in the gray/beige shag carpet. We were the only black family on the street. We'd been in the house maybe a week, when someone--we never knew who, but I suspected the next door neighbors--egged our house. They broke my bedroom window. I don't remember if my father called the police, but I remember he was furious. I slept in that bedroom with a broken window, watching egg yolk drip and congeal on the outside glass. The broken pane was like a starburst in the center. We had it fixed right before I moved out, ten years later.

I remember feeling unsafe in the third grade, when the boy sitting next to me reached out and grabbed me by the pussy and laughed in my face. I have long since forgotten his name, but I have not forgotten his face.  

I remember feeling unsafe when my mother would rage at me like her heart was breaking and it was my fault, and then an hour later would be sweet to me like nothing had happened.  

I remember feeling unsafe when I watched Anita Hill on tv, and I learned (for the first time) that the people you're supposed to be able to turn to when your boss is unkind, inappropriate, when they make you feel ashamed and disgusted and violated, those people who are supposed to help will make you prove over and over that you were actually hurt, that you didn't just imagine it, and then, they won't support you or give you justice anyway.  

I remember feeling unsafe when I was 23, and while sitting quietly and talking with a friend in his parked car, we were accosted by Sarasota police. When the officer asked for i.d. and I reached toward my bag for my wallet, he shouted at me. I didn't know if he wanted me to give him the i.d. he was asking for or keep my hands where he could see them.  

I remember feeling unsafe when I realized how lucky I am that he didn't shoot me in the face then and there.  

I remember feeling unsafe Tuesday morning, when I looked in the rear view mirror on my way to work and saw a Chicago p.d. cruiser, and I tried to imagine how to talk to my colleagues about why I wasn't at the meeting, or wasn't able to teach class because I'd been arrested for driving while black.  

I remember feeling unsafe on Sunday afternoon, when I went for a run with my Mister, and our neighborhood was crawling with white people in "the uniform": blue jeans or khakis and black t-shirts, some of which said Metallica on them. Large groups of white people always make me nervous: in the blink of an eye they turn from citizens too interested in their own screens into irrational, frothy, bloodthirsty mobs. My Mister pointed out this group was particularly menacing because they were all dressed like the same way. Try as I might, I could not cast these people in the light of my friend Andrew Reilly, the Metallica fan: the metal head with a great brain, a sensitive heart, and a deep, abiding curiosity about others around him and their humanity. Instead, they only occupied the space of anonymous white person Metallica fan: they came to get wasted, rock out, raise hell, and I was just a black body in the way. Irritating. Insignificant. Disposable.

I remember feeling unsafe when, half a mile later, I saw Chicago p.d. standing on the lawn in front of the Field Museum. One of the officers was holding an AK-47 as casually as you'd hold a cup of coffee. I stopped running. I stopped breathing. I had a vision of a kerfuffle that began when I ran into a Metallica fan too busy making a joke to his bros to watch where he was going, of being picked off by the officer, a bullet slicing hotly through my spine, of my Mister with my blood on his hands, screaming, she wasn't armed, we were out for a run, she didn't do anything, what did you do, what did you do. 

 I want to believe in safety, I really do. I work hard to create a context of safety for my students and my clients, to be a beacon and a haven of safety for anyone I interact with in the course of my work. I want to create a context that communicates, you can be here and no one will ask you to be different. You might be challenged, and growth is seldom comfortable, but you have sovereignty over your own body, and together we will work with you body/mind to manifest healing, wellness, connection. 

But it's hard to believe safety is possible in our world. When the fact of my existence is a hazard to my health, and when citizens and officers of law can execute me with impunity, all I can remember is how it feels to feel unsafe. When I consider what is happening to black women, to Muslim women, what we are teaching our children about race in America, it can feel hard to leave the house, much less make myself vulnerable to others.  

The Gita would tell me to keep doing my work, of teaching and healing, and release my attachment to the results. If my life is taken from me in pursuit of my work, so much the karmic blessing. The religious tradition I was raised in would tell me any number of things: Jesus spent his time with the least of these and he would not survive in our current world, he's too radical; even to be gunned down or beaten to death will put you in the presence of the Lord, and isn't that what we all want; we're all white in Heaven. The yoga zeitgeist would tell me that politics have no place in my practice, and if I keep talking all this mess about justice and deconstruction of white supremacy side by side with mulabhanda and nadi shodana, I will alienate, and ultimately lose, students. 

What does the divine spark inside tell me? If I listen closely, I can hear it tell me that though I should be grateful that I've survived to the age of thirty-seven as a black woman in America, that is no accident; that this work is my work for a reason; that my black joy and black health are beautiful and powerful, and perhaps even more threatening to those who are afraid of me than my hair, my voice, or any imagined weapon in my waistband or purse will ever be. Finally, it tells me that my blackness is not an identity or a label to shed or to transcend; instead my blackness is a manifestation of the divine, and those who seek to seek to shrink or dissolve it do not seek my liberation, they seek only their own deeper bondage. They are the ones who lack safety. 

Happy birthday. 

 

What Millennial Vocab and Ritual Helped Me Realize: or, Go the F*ck to Sleep

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When I was younger, I hated going to bed early. Staying up late was what all the grown-ups did. Watching Letterman or obscure Brit-coms on PBS, frolicking on the furniture while buttery popcorn falls from the sky, having swanky cocktails and "adult conversations": I wanted it all. In college and in my 20s, it wasn't so hard to do, staying up late. I wasn't a total night owl, compared to lots of friends and loved ones, but I could stay up late and kick it. I liked watching the hours get bigger and then smaller and feeling like I was into something.

When my yoga practice really settled in and took a hold of my life, though, staying up late became harder to do. As the physical practice of yoga became a larger part of the rhythm of my days, certain things felt less interesting, less useful, and there were other things I wanted to cultivate. Animal protein made me feel sluggish, heavy, and slow; caffeine made me jittery and spacey, and then sleepy and irritable; and staying up late meant sleeping in, which ate up half my day and made it really hard for me to wake up early enough to squeeze in even a little practice. On the other hand, when I made the time to breathe deeply, I felt full of energy, spacious and capable; when I moved my body every day, climbing stairs and hauling groceries was easier to do. All of these observations--coupled with Ayurveda texts and teachings I experienced that offered 10 pm as the optimum bedtime for someone like me--helped inspire me to pass on late night drinks and conversations about writing, relationships or the questions of life, and plan on turning in.

But damn if it isn't hard to do. Even now, coming up fast on middle age, I want to stay up late. I want to watch whatever compelling storytelling has people talking. I want to stay out with my friends and share stories of growth and discovery. I want to go dancing. I want to walk city streets hand-in-hand and look at the gritty urban landscape that is my home. I want to make late-nite memories.

This desire is squarely at odds with my desires to feel healthier, be more productive, to show up more fully and effectively in my life as a health worker, a yoga teacher, a writer and storyteller, a partner and wife, a friend, a family member. They just don't go together. I stay up late to kick it with loved ones, or, what is more likely and certainly more frequent, to watch mediocre TV under the guise of "winding down" after having worked a night shift/class, and the next day I struggle to wake up early enough for my morning practice. If I do wake up early enough, it's because I forced myself to do so, and I spend the rest of the day feeling groggy and wasted, and upset about it. 

All actions are performed by the gunas of prakriti [qualities of matter or manifestation]. Deluded by identification with the ego, a person thinks, “I am the doer.” But the illumined person understands the domain of the gunas and is not attached... Those who are deluded by the operation of the gunas become attached to the results of their action. Those who understand these truths should not unsettle the ignorant. Performing all actions for my sake, completely absorbed in the Self, and without expectations, fight!—but stay free from the fever of the ego.
— Bhagavad Gita, 3:27-30

I've been really trying to get to the bottom of why I keep acting the opposite of how I want to, why, as the apostle Paul said in his letter to the Roman Christians, "what I want to do I do not do, [and] what I hate, I do." I think it comes down to two reason: first is this idea of samskara. This isn't new, right? There's a ditch wide and deep inside me that believes that collapsing on the couch with a lousy and unnecessary snack is what rest means: some part of me has agreed that behavior that I know to be damaging and counter-intuitive is actually rejuvenating. It was created years ago, and I've spend significant more energy investing in it since then. Some part of me is still giving it my truth, and even though I'm able to see that this pattern doesn't serve me, some part of me still believes it to be true, to be useful, or at the very least, easier than changing. 

The other reason I won't go to sleep when I know I should is, ugh, I hate to say it: FOMO. I know I'm not a millennial, and still I'm gonna use that word, without any selfie or Millennial Pink or hack or anything else. I'm still stuck in the 10-year-old mindset who doesn't want to miss whatever's coming next as soon as I tuck into bed and close the door.

I'm holding on too hard. And so lifts up the word aparigraha, one of the yamas from the yoga sutras. I'm trying too hard to hold on to what is not mine, or perhaps rather, I seek to let go of what I no longer want to claim as mine. Whatever the world does after ten pm, that's their business, or your business. My business is resting my body, practicing gratitude for what I've experienced today, and preparing myself to be the best I can tomorrow. It was a little revolutionary to discover that I'm grasping too hard, and that's why I can't release this behavior that produces such negative results in me. But the more I consider it, the more it makes sense: there is no room for me to cultivate rest and expansion and space, if I am not first willing to open my tight, well-intentioned little fist and release contraction and collapse. 

So now that the why is a little clearer, onto the how. Cultivating new habits is not easy for anyone, and using the discipline and effort it takes is a tapas-producing practice. But I'm trying to engineer myself for success. As is my way, I'm reading the articles and the things, and Googling phrases like "sleep hygiene" and "bedtime ritual" and trying to ignore that a fair amount of the results are geared for six year olds. I'm enlisting the help of an accountability buddy (thanks, buddy!). I'm doing a lot of yoga nidra. And I'm practicing compassion. We'll see what happens.

If you're interested, below you'll find a kind of snapshot of my bedtime ritual. I try to give myself an hour for this: right now that's as much as I can spare without feeling like I'm cheating myself out of an evening. Heavily influenced by yoga and ayurveda, this is what I use to try and prepare myself for rest. Steal what you will, I make claim to own or have created any of it. It's just what I'm trying to make work for me. I've written about this elsewhere, and as soon as it's live, I'll share it here.

Jess's Bedtime Ritual

  • screens off at 9 pm (oh! how I wish! But sometimes this happens)
  • a cup of something warm to drink, usually nut milk with a sprinkle of cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, and a splash of maple syrup and vanilla extract (if this is too much or I'm shorter on time, an herbal tea)
  • lavender oil (somewhere, anywhere: pulse points, diffuser, some place where I can smell it in bed)
  • a cool bedroom (I turn the thermostat down to 69, much to the chagrin of my Mister, but I get so hot at night that anything higher means I'm tossing and turning all night)
  • clean face, mouth, hands
  • a little reading (lately this this or this)
  • a moment of gratitude

And if there's enough time...

  • a foot and/or scalp rub with brahmi oil
  • a few gentle asana (child's pose, supta baddha konasana, reclined twist, all supported with lots of pillows. I do it in bed, it's awesome)
  • Bhramari 

On Binding, Commitment, and the Teacher that Is Struggle

Baddha Parsvakonasa because I had some things to work out in my spine and side bodies, in my heart and mind. Also, Go Warriors.

Baddha Parsvakonasa because I had some things to work out in my spine and side bodies, in my heart and mind. Also, Go Warriors.

I tell my students that our practice of yoga is seldom about all the fancy and interesting shapes we can but out body into; but instead is about putting our body into shapes, and then practicing being present there. Sometimes the shapes are striking, or lovely, or impressive, at least on the outside. Sometimes they're easy; sometimes they're quite complicated. 

This morning I found myself craving practices that would require a bit more effort, would on appearance, confine and prevent expansion, but would have an effect of creating more space, more energy, more movement and expansion and rest. So I found myself in the shape above and some others: twisting, binding, contortions that are (for me) challenging. There isn't any great, cool epiphany that I experience in bound side angle pose; I practice expanding into integrity in this shape, I make sure the bind isn't inhibiting my alignment; I enjoy breathing into the shape, and trying to make sure that I'm dwelling with my breath, listening to it, and staying present in the posture and sensation. 

This kind of practice is important to me because of how often it mirrors day-to-day. Professional challenges, relationships, desires, even attempts at personal growth, can all be fraught with struggle and obstacle. This week I celebrated my seventh wedding anniversary with my husband. I sometimes want to use the word struggle, along with words like laughter, joy, affection, intimacy, connection, to describe the last seven (to ten) years. They haven't been consistently easy: we've fought, and sometimes quite ugly; each of us has experienced personal struggle that has required a lot of the other. I believe deeply in the personal, admirable, and brave choice to commit one's life to another person, because there's a lot in our current world that seeks to supersede, compromise, or even destroy that commitment. I think we're still married not because we're scared of being apart from the other, or because we're lazy, or because we won't let the bastards get our marriage. I think we're still here because each day, with all of its snares and vines, we'd still rather do life together than apart.

So, in marriage, like at work, like in yoga practice, like when I'm faced with fear or a journey that feels so uphill as to seem perfectly vertical, I put myself in the shape, and I take it one breath at a time. This isn't really a post about marriage; commitment to another, like any yoga posture, is just an opportunity to look closely at yourself in a particular shape, and see where we are gripping or holding, where we're working too hard, where we might need a bit more integrity or discipline, or where an adjustment from a pair of loving hands might be in order. The challenge of the posture, like the challenge of relationship--work, platonic, romantic, and individual--serves us as a mirror to show us our tendencies, our blind or weak spots, our successes and growths, and allows us to continue to seek openness, non judgment and equanimity, one breath at a time. 

I won't say anything quite so hackneyed as, embrace the struggle. (It's in the yoga teacher handbook, but I want to roll my eyes at that one.) But I will say sometimes a shape you find yourself in is hard, and that struggle has something to teach you. It can't teach us if we're too busy complaining about how hard it is, or if we're trying to force it, or backing off it because we're scared. All we can do is find the deepest shape we have access to, breathe and witness.