Mindful Transitioning

I'm almost sure I've used this picture once before, but it bears repeating, no? Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 2012.

I'm almost sure I've used this picture once before, but it bears repeating, no? Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 2012.

The intensity of practice reveals yoga’s nearness.
— threads of yoga, matthew remski

I had just turned 27, and everything was changing. My roommate had moved out; she announced at the beginning of summer that she was leaving Chicago to attend grad school in Philadelphia. I never said this to her, but I felt abandoned by her. I had connected with her in a way I never had before with another woman; despite being vastly different, I felt we understood each other. I learned so much from her. She challenged me, she encouraged me, and we had so much fun together. When she unplugged herself from my life, with as much effort as unplugging the toaster, I was heartbroken. I moved out of our beautiful three-bedroom apartment in East Humboldt Park and away from the spiritual community I'd built, into the only place I could afford, a tiny studio apartment.

I was awash in language. It was my last year of grad school, and I was completing my master's thesis, a collection of short stories about people I knew, people I didn't know, relationships and ideas and connections that fascinated and troubled me. I knocked around my hovel of a studio apartment in Uptown, dark, dingy, utterly unromantic, from bed to desk to stove to sink and back again. I bounced out the door once a week to a classroom in the South Loop where I taught a roomful of undergrads about what fun it is to make story. I bounced around the country teaching children, teens and adults the transporting magic of reading. I occasionally had brunch or looked at art with the man I'd eventually marry. I tried to go to yoga class, because there was no place to practice in my studio. And I spent every waking moment with my journal or in front of my computer making stories. 

I love writing. Crafting language is the first, last and best way I know of understanding the world around me, of celebrating what is marvelous and understanding what is frightening and untangling what is painful. Constructing language, when crafted without too much self-aggrandizement, with sincerity and beauty and simplicity, can be a spiritual practice. Language is what I use to practice compassion and vulnerability, two qualities I come more and more to believe are intrinsic to the human condition, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But at the time, when I was 27 and adrift, there was just too much language in my life. Lines from the story about the two kids who found the dead body, lines from the story about the housewife's meltdown, lines from the story about what I imagined my grandparents' marriage could be like: they were all over me all the time. They were in my thoughts, under my fingers, in my mouth, it was like living in alphabet soup.

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
— The Bible

I didn't know I was seeking silence when I started going to yoga class in Edgewater; I just knew the studio was close to my boyfriend's place and the Sunday night community class was half-primary, which I had a crush on at the time. I found silence. I would go to class, and once we started moving, there was a lot less talk, fewer words. I remember at one point, sweating through parivrtta trikonasana and parivrtta parsvakonasana, and realizing all I could hear was my breath. I was grateful for the silence: no music, no drums or kirtans, just my breath and the sound of my limbs on the mat, and whatever quasi-verbal sounds came out of me in a particular shape.

I kept going, because I needed the silence. Moving away from my spiritual community, losing my best friend, these things had left a hole in me, and even though church in the traditional sense was still available to me, it just felt too language-based. I wanted to be close to the G_d that lived in the space between words, in spaces: not the God of edicts and rules, or rhetoric, or even worship.  Yoga felt like a spiritual practice, as much as attending church, reading holy books, even praying, ever had. I was moving into a new place where my physical practice felt like prayer. 

I've been reading threads of yoga lately. It's slow, dense, something you need to digest in small bites because it features words I don't understand clearly, like "ontological" and "praxis". This isn't a judgment of the text, only a statement of how slowly I must engage it to understand. But when I engage it slowly, it hits me fast and heavy, the way a rainstorm blows in, soaking everything, threatening a flash flood. The text helps me consider what yoga is: is it something I do to keep my blood pressure low, is it something I do because I like touching my toes; is it a Western subculture largely dominated by a energy of privilege and homogeneity, that for all of its talk about union and spirituality, is in staunch denial of its shadow side, and the ways in which that manifests oppression; is it more than exercise, or not more than cultural appropriation; is it prayer...

My practice feels as though it moves not linearly, but in concentric circles. Rather, it moves linearly when I consider only what can I do with my body. When I  consider that I can touch my toes standing and seated, when a bind in half-lotus feels not so tight and impossible, when I can move my body through the transitions my teachers ask me to with a tiny bit more grace than I could a few months ago, then my practice moves linearly. This is interesting, but only for a short while, if I set my sights on the next pose, the next vinyasa, the next physical feat.

But when I consider the practice that feels like home when I can't make words, when I step to the mat--tired, confused, frustrated, alienated--and it feels like a prayer rug, when I touch the tide of yearning that rises within me wanting to dive deeper into the practice that, beneath all the commerce and homogeneity and (I'll say it again) oppression, beneath all the acting out and the ego and the missteps of humans, is something healing, even holy: Ah! Then it feels like a spiral, a cycle I move through ever deeper toward Divinity.

I bring this up right now because I feel in the midst of another of those transitions, those moments when I have the opportunity to choose whether or not to move deeper. There's a lot in my life that's making it difficult, but the call to move nearer, to engage in the practice more deeply, is so strong. Yoga lifts up parts of me that I don't really want to look at, that I'd rather pretend aren't there, or that I've "overcome". It is a fine mirror, accurate, honest, surgically precise, in shining a light on the things I have sought to keep buried for so long. If my physical practice never changes, that is still a reason to step to the mat everyday: for the spiritual work the physical practice bids me do.

Religious Traditions

I am not a Hindu. It's not a label I wear: I've never observed a puja or attended temple and engaged in whatever ritual takes place there. I don't know what it means to be a Hindu or to observe Hindu traditions. It's not a tradition that I can claim, I think. My yoga practice seems to require of me, though, more than just engaging a tradition without examining its roots. That is to say, I can't participate in yoga blithely and ignorantly without considering the subtle, esoteric and religious connections it shares with Hinduism and Buddhism. I have no illusions about the overlap--or maybe line of connection--between my practice of breath, movement stillness, and connection, and the yogis' search for God.

When I think the history, the religious history that I was raised in, this history I participate in complicitly or explicitly, I think of something I heard the Dali Lama say in a talk online. He was asked by a Buddhist student who was also Jewish if he, the student, should leave behind his tradition and convert to Buddhism. The Dali Lama said, if you are not a Buddhist, don't leave your tradition to join Buddhism. If you are a Jew, stay a Jew. If you're a Christian, stay a Christian. There are all kinds of Buddhists.

And so I am not a Hindu. My practice doesn't require me to convert. I was born into a vaguely Christian culture and raised in what became a sincerely and seriously Christian family. That's my tradition.

I was reminded of that, walking through Saint-Chappelle. I often forget my tradition. The vengeance, the hypocricy, the judgment that has become so much a part of Christianity, well, I don't like it. It doesn't resonate anymore. I needed my tradition to grow. Still, it was nice to look at these stories I've known for years dramatized in stone, and in colored glass.  It reminded me how much beauty there is in the stories of Christianity. 

I have an altar at home that has as icon of Ganesha and of Nataraja on it. I often wonder if this is negatively appropriative. But in the morning when I am praying, when I need a place to focus or I need my mantra to have extra power, I'm grateful for it. I don't feel like I'm borrowing a tradition or crossing a boundary; I'm just accessing the Divine in the best way I can.

There is someone who probably thinks I should be ashamed of myself, who would say I should stick to my own tradition: with its burning bush and child sacrifice, with its swallowing whales, water walking, cheek turning and death that only lasts three days. I suppose I should. I haven't forsaken that tradition. It feels rich and wonderful. But there must be enough space for a monkey who can leap over oceans and a whale who swallows reluctant prophets. There must be enough space for an archer to talk through self-doubt with his charioteer, as there is for a carpenter's son to wander the desert, wrestling with his demons.

I had a religion professor who said that maybe, in the time between Christ's 12th birthday and when he began his ministry at 30, he went off to India and studied with the Buddha. 

Maybe these traditions are one.