Reflections on the Time of Coronavirus, in Four Parts

Do settle in: this is a long read, but all we have is time these days, after all…?

 I. A Lecture on the End of Time in a Theatre Soon to Close

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Eleven days ago, before the tyranny of a pandemic virus would take hold over  California, I took my dad out for a birthday dinner at a new Thai place in town, and then to a lecture from Columbia University Professor and leading string theorist Brian Greene. It was a full house of people eager to hear Greene’s position on the “end of time”: Does this exist? If so, how will it happen? How does human history figure into the end of the universe?

Greene proceeded to give a bombastic lecture, with elaborate animations and soundscapes, of the circumstances leading up to the end of time, which manifested themselves in a complex relationship between dynamics of Entropy (disorder), Evolution, and Eternity.

According to Greene, the extinction of humanity “from one thing or another” would happen well before the earth would fall into the dark, dead sun, and black holes would suck up matter until there would be none left and then collapse in on themselves. The end of all existence would follow the final bit of entropy that is released upon the act of  the generation of a final thoughtonly for some of those entropic particles to meet eventually somewhere in the void and become something, leading to (eventually) a new Big Bang, a new expanding universe, a new Earth (or Earth-ish thing), and all the rest of it in a great, meta-cosmic cycle.

Now, if I had been quick enough to line up behind all the eager physicists jostling for a turn with the mic during the Q&A, I would have asked, “why is thought the final thing to precede nothingness, followed by eventual somethingness?” Why couldn’t that thing be anything else? A cat, or a book, or a bottle of whiskey? Perhaps for Greene, thought is just a placeholder for whatever the final thing is. Perhaps he is extending a consolation prize to the creationists after claiming that there is no intelligent design, or designer in the universe, by presuming that in the end (and thus in the beginning) was logos (word, thought) after all.

Perhaps, as was his consistent refrain when he rounded up a not-completely-resolved point in the talk, or when his querents asked too complicated a question, you just have to read my new book.

Said new book

II. If We Know Nature, Can We Control Her?

This is a question that comes to me in the present circumstances, when many worldwide are stuck at home watching the increasingly harrowing news about more cases and more deaths, or otherwise in grocery stores, panic-buying pasta and toilet paper, even when our world leaders say that the supply chains are still solid. They say that if we shut ourselves up in our houses, the virus will burn itself out in its failure to find new hosts within a few months.

Do we know better? Are our mathematical models and social distancing strategies superior to the instincts of a virus that has no cognition (as far as we know)?

It was not Greene’s claim about the lack of intelligent design of the universe; nor his assertion that we have no free will because our constituent particles determine our actions; nor even his postulation that, if particles by natural succession make predictable patterns in structure, there might be a floating brain structure identical to his own brain out in space, thinking the same thoughts as he is and imagining that it is a human, giving a lecture in front of hundreds of people when actually it is a floating brain – it was none of these claims that I found most arresting.

It was one graph he showed us that demonstrated the accuracy of mathematical models for determining the distribution of heat in the universe (as was confirmed by observable readings), and his comment that, “See, we can make these mostly reliable calculations, and we have some control.”

Control of the natural world through understanding, I assumed he meant, so that science becomes not merely a means of knowing through observation, but a means of using the language of mathematics to penetrate the cosmos with incisive predictions about the end of all life, matter, and time. [Yes, he did concede that mathematics may indeed not be the only, or the best language available to us to know, in the Q&A].

This presumption to know irritated me, and I rather begrudged him this statement that night. I asked Venus Genetrix, Nature herself, to disprove his predictions, to keep her mysteries fully intact. Be careful what you wish for, I suppose…

But then I realized that I habitually look to establish a similar sense of “control” in my own research. I study Greco-Roman literature and myth, and my colleagues and I often presume to know, to have some control over (our understanding of) these cultures, and the function of stories therein. I too like to give the logos of thought and analysis presiding importance, rather than to let the object of my thought stand for itself and remain resolutely unanalyzed.

As interested as we in that lecture theatre were not two weeks ago in what the end of time will look like, this week we would all like to know when we will even be able to enter a theatre again, when things will return to normal, and at what human price. This knowledge, this control myself and innumerable others around the world would do much to redeem.

And as a yogi, the processes of “letting go”/”surrendering” to nature that we hear as stock instructions in the classes that are now live-streamed by teachers in self-isolation, ring numbly in my ears.  These instructions demand a radical renunciation of my own acute experience of needing nature to be more predictable, to follow our well-researched strategies for its containment.

When things are most at stake, the real yoga begins, and asks us whether the question, “Do we have control?” is the most important one.

III. The Control We Have?

It is the first day of spring. Day 1 of the California Governor’s stay-at-home order, whose end has yet to be determined.

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A friendly neighborhood reminder I came across the other day…

The world has changed so rapidly in the last few months that we have had no choice but to live under the reign of this new, invisible power, a respiratory disease that has become a global pandemic. People have died, and continue to perish by the thousands in the hardest hit countries: Italy, China, Iran, Spain. The California governor predicts that 56% of Californians could contract the virus, unless we all undergo prolonged, rigorous self-isolation.

Many of us can work from home, but many of us cannot work at all, have no choice but to apply for unemployment insurance. Those who work in the arts, entertainment, hospitality, travel, and especially airline industries are the worst affected. Many countries have closed their borders.

The landlords cannot evict their tenants, residential or commercial. The schools and libraries are closed. Most of the courts are closed. The restaurants are open only for take-out. The grocery stores are packed with shoppers who deplete the pasta shelves and the meat counter before noon.

This enforced isolation began as mere social distancing (maintaining a distance of six feet from another person) in public places and transmuted itself into the complete desertion of public places.

And now, we do everything at home: see friends virtually, work remotely, take live-streamed yoga classes, watch a lot of Netflix, play board games, (hopefully) have lots of fulfilling sex and deep discussions. And the end of this is indefinite.

When I watch television or films these days, I feel as if I am on a long-haul flight. I watch people out in the world, engaging in social activities that I must wait to experience again. Until we’ve reached some destination of normalcy.

I find that the biggest impact this phase in world history has dealt me is the realization of our human connectivity, the understanding that for the first time in my life, death has a common face globally, a coronavirus. At the same time I and many others practice an anthrocentrism that balks at the splendor of the natural world that lies beyond our shut windows. Why does nature not see what is happening to us? Why do the trees still dance in the wind, and the bees fill the lavender bushes and the winking stars of Orion continue to float somewhere past my roof?

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Somehow the natural world feels more enchanted than before.

Yet for some, this current situation carries few new perspectives, or existential quandaries.

When walking past a new build in my neighborhood, where a large contingent of the builders are of Latinx descent, I overheard two blonde women who were surveying the building project and reflecting on their own experiences as overseers of home improvement works. One of them said, “My girlfriend Lori and I share Santos…well, I shouldn’t say we share him. He works for her six days a week”.

Shortly after this, I heard a young man frustratedly shouting into his phone, “Can’t he and I just split the fee? I said I was interested in this role, and now he goes to the fucking company about it?!”

The anxieties of work, politics, and the everyday violence of belittling, racist objectification of others somehow still prevails in the midst of Nature’s appeal to us all to wake up.

Assuming that Nature is intelligent.

IV. Making Meaning in the Madding Maelstrom: Some Attempts

Dr. Greene delivered his talk not two weeks ago at a theatre that is now shut. And now no one can sit at the counter at the Thai restaurant in the bustling public market.

 

The restaurants and coffee shops have cleared out all their tables. A big void in front of the counter gapes open, and people swirl around there in an invisible vortex, giving each other a wide berth, looking nervously over their shoulders as they wait for the barista to add cream to their coffee, as the self-service area has been dismantled.

At the grocery store, the meat, produce, bread, and pasta go first. Only skim milk is left. People slide past one another, nervous and smooth as electric eels, crackling with nerves. The manager stands in front of his desk, hands on hips, looking analytically and anxiously at the shoppers whose faces are pinched with scarcity, who smile nervously.

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The pasta aisle, where all that remains is a solitary one-minute gluten free white rice…

Next week I will be giving a lecture (via Zoom) on myth and multiculturalism in Pompeii to graduate students in a comparative mythology program. In the initial stage of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed the city in the summer (or fall, depending on whom you ask) of 79 CE, the city experienced twelve hours of pumice fall before the pyroclastic flow hit: twelve hours of admonitory earthquakes, of the harbor being girded by a floating barrier of fallen porous volcanic rock that blocked the advance of Pliny the Elder’s rescue ships (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 6.16). Meanwhile, people in Herculaneum, the smaller community on the other side of Vesuvius, saw the pumice falling on their neighbors in Pompeii, and may not have known that they were also in for the acute force of the pyroclastic flow that would bury their city.

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Image from “The Fall and Rise and Fall of Pompeii”, Smithsonian MagazineJuly 2015

Has this stay-at-home order been issued in time for the warning? The pumice fall? Has the pyroclastic flow hit? Do we have the control to anticipate when it will?

They have skipped the animal testing of the prospective vaccine for the virus and are moving to human trials, but they are still working with a timeline of approximately 18 months.

Do we have control?

In China the worst seems to be over, and they are opening the schools and the restaurants again. They are leading the navigation of this fleet of countries, sailing on with closed borders and socially distant citizens, into uncharted waters of global survival. Will there be a second wave, a new squall of disease? We are already venturing out to test this, like wildebeests that must return to the watering hole after the crocodiles that took a few of their number have sunk back below the surface…

Do we have control?

And still, Nature continues its reliable patterns. The spring storms surge. The land is green. The wildflowers are blooming in the hills. The world smells like nature’s apothecary here in California. Wild sage and sweet chaparral. The birds sing the fragrances of the plants.

Meanwhile, our loci of control are still revealed to us. My yoga practice. My Pompeii lecture. My book on Greek tragic women. My small stash of toilet paper. My practice of rigorous social distancing as a means of protecting my mother, who is undergoing chemotherapy and is most at risk from the current threat. I do not know whether my peers are observing the same measure of isolation as I am. I need to break my Lenten fast and get back on social media, I guess.

I went to the Getty Villa in Malibu before the museums closed. I took some photos of Athenian vases, Roman frescos and sculptures. I sat in the ocean-facing garden of the museum, which is built as a reconstruction of the Villa dei Papiri, a massive residence in Herculaneum buried under 20 meters of ash, a monument containing a library of scrolls whose words we have yet to develop the technology to read.

Another example of the word as the end and the beginning.

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The outer peristyle at the Getty Villa, with natatio (the museum calls it a “reflecting pool”) in the left corner.

Keep well and safe, everyone! Thanks for reading.

 

Reflections on the Hidden, the Hallowed, and the Harrowing of Scorpio Season

Why not rise early, when it is still dark, to read a few lines of something that cradles, calms, delights, or even perturbs you? Why not write a few lines of your own, and regale yourself with contemplative musings, the beginnings of tales that flicker like firelight in the dark cold potential of the day unbirthed, a potential that seethes unseen, like magma, a day waiting to be born under the waning light of a sun in Scorpio?

These are the questions I ask myself when I want to stay in bed a few more minutes, but know that it will be ultimately more fulfilling to begin the day with some form of movement, contemplation, shifting things around in the shadows.

Scorpio is the purveyor of things hidden, and secret, and clandestine. The wielder of latent powers that churn the depths of the earth and generate new life out of the husks of old.

Here are some recent reflections on how this theme has expressed itself to me of late.

Fall at Pacifica

Astrology’s Scorpionic Renaissance

Despite my record of astrologically themed blog posts, my interest in astrology is something I’ve been ambivalent about sharing since I first began to study it when I was about ten years old, around the same time as I discovered Greco-Roman mythology, my great love and medicine. Astrology was one of those pursuits to study in the pre-sunrise, late night, hidden hours, because I received early messages that it was at worst creepy and demonic, and at best silly and small-minded.

My friends’ mothers, my teachers’ wives, those were the ones whom I was often told were interested in astrology when I was young; all the women about whom I could say, “I know of her, but I do not know her”. Those whose names rang like reference points in my mind well before I met them, after such a long time of mutual friends ensuring that our shared, secret interests would result in an enviable intimacy.

I did meet some of these rare, astrologically-inclined people in passing. Many of them had other primary, but still complementary pursuits: tarot, metalworking, psychoanalysis, painting. And similarly for me, astrology was a longstanding interest I kept close at hand wherever I went. I studied psychological astrology in California, then moved to the UK for graduate school and took a foundational course at the London School of Astrology, a course that combined the more popular techniques of birth chart reading and forecasting with branches as old and esoteric as horary astrology (the one that allows you to find that pair of keys you lost under the floorboards of your ex-wife’s house) and as nascent as astrocartography, which casts a new birth chart for you wherever you find yourself in the world. I have studied, I have read charts for others, and very recently I published my first astrological article, a piece on the astrological evolution of MTV as a network and a cultural entity in a volume, The Book of Music Horoscopes, edited by Frank Clifford, a great mentor of mine.

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One of the first astrology books I worked with as a pre-teen…

Music and Astrology

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And now things have evolved, and among young people especially there seems to be a certain expectation of a base level of astrological literacy that stretches from personality profiling to behavioral adaptation on the basis of New Moons and Mercury retrogrades. Popular attitudes toward these two elements in particular expose the very human vacillation between the belief in the capacity of the individual to harness the power of the cosmos and “find the flow” with mere intentionality (expressed by making a vision board, journaling, or shouting into the void “It will be so!”), and the belief that there is nothing to do but surrender to cosmic forces which are more powerful than we are.

A recent New York Times article acknowledged the shift toward astrology, and other pursuits in self-awareness, self-development, and self-actualization (such as various practices associated with the psychedelic renaissance) used as language to communicate human experience, and modes of self-healing. The article centers on the pressures therapists are currently encountering to become fluent in this parlance in order to witness their clients’ experiences, rather than to voice encouragement or discouragement.

The shop where I bought my first astrology books, which used to be minded by older women dressed in voluminous earth-toned draperies is now run by young people, with no apparent predominance of gender expression, whose wardrobe does not clearly read “New-Age”.

So perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, but it seems, at least in mainstream Californian culture, astrology no longer inhabits the dubious realm of the “occult”, and voicing one’s impressions of astrological phenomena is not perceived as a sinister deed, or, at its most benign, a wishy-washy practice for gullible and inconsequential minds.

Astrology seems to be doing the true Scorpionic thing of emerging, refortified and reformed out of the shadows.

Astrology is like folklore, an old, non-linear language for understanding humanness that goes in and out of fashion, but always manages to survive social pressures to go into hiding. The archetypal metaphors astrology uses offer (like folklore again) interpretations and aetiologies, points of origin for those goading questions of why, when each subsequent generation is just a bit more knowledgeable of compassion, moral behavior, environmentalism, diversity appreciation, kindness, hospitality, ingenuity, grace, and the arts of living honorably, generously, and conscientiously, we individually and collectively struggle to enact these lessons, and still manage to do ourselves and others harm sometimes.

Scorpio is in the sign of katabasis, the journey to the Underworld for a meeting with a departed mentor, a requisite part of the heroic journey. Scorpio reminds us that the greatest stories bury wisdom in the shadow realms, which for us might look like the painful recognition of shame and guilt and anger and limb-slackening grief and self-betrayal and irrationality and fear of our own irrationality.

But these aspects also help us to contextualize the gifts, the triumphs, the strengths, the redemptive potential that lies beyond the mistakes we are bound to make. The bond into which we entered when our consciousness took human form.

Adventures in Scorpionic healing with (what else?) crystal singing bowls

I went to a yoga class on the night of the New Moon in Scorpio. The class featured a sound bath of crystal singing bowls played by a teacher who invited meditations on death, grief, and regeneration of the decayed in new forms. I do not know whether it was this conceptual set-up that resulted in the following experience, or if it was the singing bowls themselves.

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Detail from photograph of crystal singing bowls from Yoga Journal article, “Why Are Crystal Singing Bowls Everywhere Lately?”

Prior to the sound bath our teacher led us through a slow movement practice. She spoke with a measure of conviction and spiritedness that I somehow found reminiscent of a sea captain leading an exploratory voyage. Yet, for me, there was something disturbingly opaque about where we were headed, the lessons I was supposed to be learning. The greying twilight pressing in on the windows and the rapidly cooling air had me feeling as if we were sailing through a thick fog, with only our breath and our teacher’s clear, bright voice to signal any forward movement.

Near the end of the class, after the light had faded completely, she wound her mallet around the rims of the crystal bowls, and their dull ringing struck eerie, creeping waves in the air that sought my organs and plied them with searching sonic fingers. People in the class started coughing. I could hear doors slamming in the neighboring businesses as the proprietors left. All of the sounds rang violent, far too loud and sudden, a dissonant, erratic jarring against the consistent thrumming of the bowls, whose wavelike intonations I did not quite trust.

Until my teacher sang along, in a low, rich, humming. And then my throat rapidly swelled and threatened to burst and tears filled my eyes. Suddenly I envisioned a lonely, sinuous throbbing thing, a conscious entity without eyes or nose or ears, but keenly sensate, encased in weblike, glistening strands and suspended in the dark, and it might have been my heart. It might have been my life, unseen by anyone but me. Life, simply felt, so intimately and in such solitude that it seems ugly, grotesque, and shameful, but unapologetically so.

She sang, and the beauty of her voice, blended with her crystalline companions in that preternatural harmony, struck me deeply. I found myself clinging to life, to the splendour of hearing, and feeling the sound waves seep into the subdermal parts of myself that felt as distant and as essential as the core of the earth.

I thought crystal bowl sound baths were supposed to be relaxing. But in the foggy, uncharted currents of consciousness which we sailed, our captain had asked us (in words other than the following, by which I am taxing this metaphor beyond its reasonable limits) to scatter to the grey waves the burned-out aspects of ourselves and our external circumstances we could acknowledge had died for us this year, signalling our readiness to release them into the hands of Nature, Venus Genetrix, the resourceful mistress of reformulating the dead into the living.

Crystal bowls are apparently taking the place of Tibetan metal singing bowls in yoga classes. I found a recent Yoga Journal article, wherein makers of crystal bowls claim that these bowls more effectively facilitate the penetration (a word used more than once in this article) of our bodies with sound waves because our bones have a crystalline, as opposed to a metallic structure. Thus, crystal bowls made in Colorado are more healing, more attuned to the human body, than Tibetan prayer bowls. I suspect a case of cultural supersessionism. But maybe this is merely because I could not handle the penetrative healing of the crystal bowls.

Scorpio season: Learning the art of living

Indeed, Scorpio season is a good time to pause in our onward striving, all our work toward future manifestation, to acknowledge the opacity of loss, in terms of the unknown changes it will bring, and the questions, grief, and anxieties it conjures and will never satisfy. The uncanny ways in which loss points to life, goads us with a kind of urgency to live, to attend the wake after the burial.

A year ago I went to a women’s ceremony in celebration of Samhain, the new year in the Celtic tradition, also the time when (as in many other traditions) the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest, when we pause to consider the fragility, but the insistent vigor of life as we light candles in the darkness for Samhain, for Día de los Muertos, for Diwali. In a meditation exercise in this ceremony we were invited to consider how we would live if we knew we only has six months. One month. One week.

When the dead leaves seek the earth, it is natural, I suppose, to contemplate these things, to find a space to sit with them in community, to honor their weight without bearing it alone, to find compassion for the uncomfortable, inconsolable depths within us all, to tell stories in the dark that can be cauldrons for all the stewing passions, griefs, and wiles that are big and timeless, and paradoxically, can reside in one body, in one heart.

And to speak in the language of astrology, which continues to rise out of the depths of the “occult”…

At this time of year, I have been rising early, when it is still dark, to move, to feel my muscles stretch and strive and ache, to feel my lungs expand, my toes flatten themselves against the floor, in honor of those who cannot rise in their bodies anymore. To read and to write a little, to delight in my ability to experience thought, mere consciousness, abilities that we have for such precious time as we live.

But in the interest of emotional equilibrium maybe I’ll give the crystal bowls a decent berth…

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Good questions for Scorpio season:

  • What inner processes of transformation am I undergoing?
  • This year, what has come to a natural, or an unnatural close? Can I bear compassionate witness to my experience of this loss, in my body, and in my heart?
  • What sources of wisdom have I encountered in the midst of the toughest challenges I have faced in the past year?
  • Where does my way feel constricted, my view occluded? Can I wait out the uncertainty until the shadows start to shift and some truth, previously unnoticed, is revealed?
  • How can I honor my ancestors? What qualities do I see in them, and in their stories that inspire me deeply?
  • How might I conduct myself differently when I envision myself as an ancestor, a forerunner of future lives?

And on a slightly lighter level…

What are my favorite folktales, myths, or scary stories to tell in the autumnal season? What aspects of them speak to my experience?

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One of my favorites was always The Ghost-Eye Tree, by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault, a children’s book whose premise involves a brother and a sister traveling on a last-minute errand to fetch milk for their mother. They must walk to the dairy farmer after dark, and halfway along the road they must pass an old, said-to-be-haunted oak tree, called the Ghost-Eye Tree. The boy narrator of the book tells his reader,

“One dark and windy autumn night when the sun had long gone down, Mama asked my sister and me to take the road to the end of the town to get a bucket of milk. Oooo . . . I dreaded to go . . . I dreaded the tree . . . Why does Mama always choose me when the night is so dark and the mind runs free?”

I love the story because the tree must be suffered, halfway along the path to light and safety, on the way there and back. The boy has a talisman, a hat, which he wears to make him look tough (to himself, really), until the wind takes it and his sister has to run back to find it on the “haunted ground” at the foot of the Ghost Eye Tree. She survives the solo trip for the hat, and chastises her brother for his fearfulness.

When the night is so dark and the mind runs free…

Reminds me of when I was a kid and feared the darkness. I would fall asleep listening to the radio, my talisman of sorts, because I felt comforted by the live broadcast, the knowledge that a DJ was awake and at work, and whose presence over the radio waves could somehow ward off the absorption of the darkness that scared me so much.

I love tales that draw attention to the fearsome stories our minds fashion, stories that illuminate the fragility of the monsters as well as the talismans that ward them off.

Lots to harvest and to steep in contemplative silence this time of year.

Thanks for reading, witnessing, and thinking.

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A few weeks ago I took a photo at the last Full Moon (in Aries) of an autumnal, Ghost-Eye Tree lookalike in my neighborhood.

30 Lessons from Yoga Teacher Training

I had said that I would blog my experiences of my first 200-hour yoga teacher training in California throughout, that I would chronicle in glorious detail the dance with the Dionysian, serpentine parts of myself in real time, as they made themselves known to me during the inevitable threshold-crossings, revelations and openings of the heart that occurred in the course of the training.

And now, six months after that initial promise, I am back in the UK, writing my first little series of reflections on this blog.

Perhaps this is not surprising. The wealth of teachings, conversations, movement workshops, musical rhapsodies, ecstatic silences, beatitudes, and agonies I would encounter every week of the training were a lived experience, my impressions of which often resisted immediate recording in words, or when recorded, felt too fragile to be revealed on a public platform.

The integration of some practices encountered in the training will take considerable time.

Overall, I derived an excellent foundation of the nuts-and-bolts knowledge of alignment, anatomy, sequencing of a yoga class, and the major philosophical schools and history of the practice. Every week I taught fellow trainees, friends, and family members. I took lots of notes, in the teacher training sessions and in yoga classes I would attend outside of those sessions. Minutes after a class I would plant myself in the café around the corner and record as much of the sequence as I could remember, including cues and thematic talking points. Then I would write a report of what worked well, as far as I was concerned, in terms of pacing, sequencing, safety, music, and theme. Some days this process would take hours.

Many of the things I learned constitute a personal curriculum of lessons I fancied sharing here. The following, in haphazard order, are the essentials I have derived from the many teaching techniques, stories, songs, wise one-liners, challenges, and other sources of comforting and confronting lessons I absorbed during the training.  These will no doubt change as my practice evolves, and I am certain that even my recollections of the insights gained in the training will shift as life continues to inform them…

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One April night in the midst of the teacher training, I dreamt that I sat on this bench outside the  studio and waited for my teacher. I waited for an afternoon and an evening. I spent a sleepless night in the cold, struggling to curl myself onto the once beautifully quaint wicker bench that had in the painful hours of darkness become a spiky Procrustean prison. The sky brightened, and it was dawn, and my teacher did not show. 
Then the realization hit: I was awaiting no one, because I was my teacher. 
I rose from the bench and began to walk. With each step I became more curious about and devoted to the teachings of ineffable value I could find within the quiet, spacious parts of myself.

30 Lessons

  1. A forearm balance is called pincha mayurasana in Sanskrit, and shortly after the training ended I managed, with kick after hesitant kick up to the elusive wall in front of me, to integrate that inversion into my practice after thinking of it as a posture “off-limits” to me for my fear of falling on my face.
  2. Proprioception, the perception of the body’s movement in space, is a key area of development in a yoga practice, in addition to strength and flexibility. For instance, sure, you can bring yourself into wheel pose, but can you work the adductors of your pinky toe without moving your other toes? So many adventures in fine motor skills to be had!
  3. The physical and subtle bodies store memories, traumas, remedies, stories, images, and quiet spaciousness, and the practice of yoga joins the practitioner in compassionate relationship with the experience of embodied centers of wisdom.
  4. I can accept that visceral insight and instinctual wisdom will not always satisfy my mind’s definition of what is rational or comprehensible.
  5. The mind, like Hesiod’s Muse he invokes at the beginning of the Theogony, is a brilliant, time-honored teller of truths and untruths. It can be loved and accepted as a part of a person, even with its fabrication of illusions and areas of ignorance and misperception (avidyas).
  6. A commitment to a personal daily yoga practice is essential for a committed teacher to uphold, for continuous work on oneself through a regular process of svadhyaya (self-study) experienced through postural practice, meditation, and breathing exercises will inform one’s teaching holistically.
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Beach, and garudasana

7.  A good teacher will use intelligent sequencing (with modifications and alternative poses for injuries and differently abled bodies), to forge a sequencing path that is sustainable and focuses on specific muscle groups/areas of connective tissue (hip/shoulder/chest/hamstrings) to prepare students for a “peak pose” that succeeds the final preparatory pose in a natural step, not a giant leap, of challenge and focused attention.

8. Though sometimes a good leap of faith – for instance, the momentum for the transition from a high lunge to a warrior 3  – is well-cued in a yoga class.

9. Music (or silence) can be a powerful way to support students’ development of embodied awareness and self-inquiry. But music also consequentially influences mood, and can inhibit students’ organic connection with their emotions and bodily sensations, so care must be taken in compiling a playlist that supports, rather than defines the students’ practice.

10. I love teaching because I love supporting people in their practice, and allowing time for students to explore intuitive movement within postures and make the practice their own.

11. When I become nervous in my yoga teaching, my instinct is to ground myself, and to read the room. I can readily work off-script (away from the written sequence). I can prioritize maintaining a safe container for students in my class to foster their unique experiences of the practice.

12. My fellow trainees, in their courage, integrity, kindness, support, humility, and inspiring consistency in showing up every week for all the challenges with which the training presented us, taught me time and time again that each person’s yoga is his/her/their yoga. Their work. Their struggle. Their experience of union. Their peace.

13. Guru is often translated as “the one who removes darkness”. I find it useful to understand that the guru can come in many forms: a friend; a teacher; a sunset; a painting; an article of clothing discarded on the sidewalk that alerts you to the literal and behavioral costumes you assume and discard from situation to situation, and makes you curious about what is being adorned; the tree branches, the blades of grass, and the strands of your hair that weave themselves into the fabric of the wind and remind you of interconnectedness at the times when you feel the greatest loneliness and separation; when you catch a stranger’s eye and notice the engage of the simple, consequential message “I see you”; the act of grace that sets things in motion just when you were about to give up.

14. The teachers/authors encountered in the training who inspired me include Lal Ded, T.K.V. Desikachar, Ramana Maharshi, Sally Kempton, Byron Katie, Adyashanti, and Neem Karoli Baba (as transmitted by Ram Dass). The ones who got under my skin are Michael Singer and Jed McKenna/whoever he really is (for the paternalistic tone and contempt for the mind I found prominent in their writing, and for the latter’s anonymity, which I know has a spiritual basis but also conveniently releases him from engaging in critical dialogue about his ideas with students, who take to Reddit to make heads, tails, and innumerable other appendages of his writings…).

15. The ethical principles of yoga, the yamas and the niyamas, are rarely introduced comprehensively in contemporary vinyasa flow classes, yet they comprise the first two of the eight limbs of yoga, found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the foundational texts of yoga philosophy. My teacher Luca taught me by her example the grace of weaving these principles mindfully, humbly, and lovingly into a yoga class, and into the fabric of community. 

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Yoga in the garden with Yoga in Practice (ed. David Gordon White, 2012), a reader from which I find passages from the major yogic philosophical texts (Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras, Upanishads, and others) to inspire my daily practice.

16. Physical posture (asana) is only one of the eight limbs of yoga in the Yoga Sutras. Posture work, and the outward appearance of postures we often see on Insta and other repositories of “ideal” – and idolized – “yoga bodies”, is by itself not necessarily an accurate representation of a person’s yoga practice. My anatomy teacher Kendall inspired me to appreciate and respect the diversity of bodies in a yoga class, and my own body. From her I learned that my spine’s flexibility is not “something I need to work on”, but is determined by the inherent positioning of my spinous processes, and can be welcomed and accepted with joy in asana practice and in life.

17. The decision to acknowledge another person’s humanity, and the choice to perceive the luminosity of being that rests in the other person and reflects my own, is called namaste.

18. The unifying practice of namaste is only reinforced by creating clear, mutually understood boundaries in relationship that affirm each person’s safety and psychospiritual integrity.

19. The more of another’s joys, sufferings, grievances, loves, and fears I learn, the less defensive I become, and the more willing I am to surrender my judgements and open my heart to another person.

20. The facilitators and trainees who surrounded me in the teacher training over that four-month period were the very teachers I needed, the ones who could show me how to unbind the parts of myself I had held hostage and starved of value, and how to meet them when they raged.

21. I can accept the periods of loneliness and fellowship, community and isolation that add texture to a practice, to a life.

22. I have a sense of humor, a resourcefulness, an intellect, and a strength of character that are ready to make themselves of service to the world when I choose to value them.

23. In my experience, resistance stretching exercises (contracting the muscle as you stretch it) can do a world of good for relieving sticky connective tissue, excessive mental rumination, and emotional quagmires, and are a delightful gift to share with yourself, or a friend or two.

24. It is a good idea to breathe in the sweet scent of fresh jasmine, or good essential oil blends and let the fragrance open windows in the mind.

25. It is a good idea to breathe and move, in that order.

26. Do “play your edge” in asana (postural) practice, i.e. find the limits of your comfort zone and consciously open yourself to the opportunity for expanding them. This requires staying present amidst boredom, the desire to check out/dissociate, and perhaps intense sensation, but coming out of the posture if there is pain in order to avoid physical injury.

27. Do NOT play your edge in pranayama (breath control) practice. Forcing the breath (especially in breath retention exercises) when there is discomfort can cause physical and psychological injury and trauma. If there is any anxiety or discomfort met in pranayama practice, drop the practice and pick it up again from a relaxed and grounded space. Do right by yourself, if that means releasing the breath when the teacher instructs you to hold it, or abstaining from kapalabhati or other vigorous breathing practices if it feels taxing and unsustainable.

28. Each day, and each shape and breath we take brings the occasion for acknowledging the roses, thorns, buds, and withered petals: the gifts, the wounds, the burgeoning adventures, the bygone things that fall in their natural way. Do not stop the petals from falling, for that is an affront to death; nor cut away the growth before it has had a good chance to thrive, for that is an affront to life.

29. Why do we twist? As my teacher Eddie demonstrated for us, props and all, with his accustomed ebullience in our final session with him, it is easier to drain water from a saturated sponge by wringing it out rather than pressing it in between the hands. Hence, we twist. We move laterally, frontwards, backwards, upside down. We stay still. We harness the breath, we play loud music, we pound the floor with our feet and our fists, we trampoline, we slide across floors and up walls. We draw and journal. We scream. We cry. We ask for help when we need it. We teach in the way we know how. We give the knowledge and resources that are ours to give. We feed each other. We give hugs when they are welcome. We deepen the twist. It is from this place where we can ask the difficult questions of ourselves, and prepare to make the tough decisions, to have the tough conversations. All to wring out what keeps us feeling paralyzed and powerless to connect authentically with ourselves and others. So many associated lessons stemmed from that symbol that we each received a sponge in addition to our training certificate, a talisman for the road ahead.

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A quiet breakfast with the Madonna at the studio before my final evaluation. Sitting on the bench depicted above…

30. Savasana, corpse pose, is “the ultimate peak pose”, as my teacher Cynthia once elucidated with resonant conviction. Indeed, it is the end and the beginning, the pose that teaches yoga in the oldest way, through total relaxation of muscular tension, mental attachments, and conscious control over the breath. Yoga in the oldest way, in the practice of dying to everything that keeps us from resting in the essence of ourselves. In total awareness. In noticing what we notice, as Cynthia would say. In expanding the awareness to claim all the complex, contradictory human pieces that lie within us, that we use to navigate our world until the moment when we don’t. In appreciating the fact that awareness pervades the pose of death, and is thus a celebration of, and a union with life.

Savasana teaches yoga in the oldest way, for, if we take as a reference point the boon of yogic knowledge given to the boy Nachiketa by Yama, Lord of Death in the Katha Upanishad, an early  textual treatment of yoga that far predates the Sutras, the first yoga teacher was Death.

Nachiketa and Yama