That is, in part, why it’s frightening to speak out loud about our vulnerabilities and weaknesses. We don’t want to appear whiny. And it’s why each entry of my Yogathon Blog project took a long time to write, rewrite, and finally go public with.
In case you missed this earth-shattering event, my Yogathon Blog project was to blog for the month of April about my almost-six years of traversing the muck of less than optimal health, and to share what that traversing has taught me as a yoga teacher and as a human being.
My hope in initiating the project was twofold. Hope one was to open up a little crack in the facade of the yoga teacher identity. I’m referring to the idea that if we do yoga as a life’s calling, that if we’re committed deeply enough to what we learn in the mat to eandeavor to share it with others, that we should be invulnerable to ill health, as well as masters of stress management, laughing mockingily at the absurd notion of negative thoughts, and at the beating that a full-sprectrum human life is capable of serving up.
Blech. I hate that.
Hope number two was to share the insight and understanding I have gained during this time. An understanding which has led me to completely reimagine what practice can be, as well as who I am and what I want from life, and what I’m capable of.
The first entry was meant as an introduction to a series of several posts that would both describe my current state within the larger picture of these years (and those to come), and also unravel the path I’ve walked to arrive here. I had a story to tell. A lot of stories, actually. And as Living Yoga’s Yogathon drew to a close, I found I had only just begun the telling process.
The posts I made during the month of April were written as part of my commitment to making my practice public, a commitment I made as an ambassador for Living Yoga’s 2015 Yogathon. I went all in. I kept a dedicated blog about my personal practice for the month of the Yogathon event.
I wrote five entries that month, which in retrospect feels like a pretty handy contribution. But the best part of the process was that it served as the motivation I needed to break the ice, and to begin telling some of the personal stories that have both stifled and fueled my yoga practice over the years.
It’s all to do with evolution and transformation, loss, and the creative process. You’ll find those five yogathon entries there, plus one from the Fall of 2014, when I blogged for the first time since I fell ill in late 2009, about how I’d just picked up a paintbrush for the first time in 14 years. Good times.
Dream – somebody (I?) was beating somebody’s (mine?) lifeless body. Lifeless as in, passed away. They were (I was) pounding somebody’s (my) lifeless flesh with tight fists, over and over as if in a rage, with every drop of strength they (I) could muster.
When I was about 19 or so, a boy I barely new, but had a crush on, either fell or jumped to his death from the roof of a building where I was attending a party. The whole evening was so random. I was walking down Fillmore street in San Francisco in 1989 and passed by a house that looked like it had a party going on inside one the flats. I was working on my shyness, and I wanted to meet people, so I braced myself and went up. A little bit after I had arrived I saw a boy come in that I knew from City College where I was taking a few classes, filling in the gaps left by my early and abrupt departure from highschool a few years earlier. I didn’t know his name, nor had I ever spoken to him, but I had seen him around the little courtyard outside of the arts department, and had developed a pretty crippling infatuation. He had messy, died black hair, and wore the long army jacket and boots that a lot of my friends wore. He had slightly crooked teeth, and I had imagined him with an English accent. He came in with a few people, one of them a girl who was pretty obviously his girlfriend, and they all disappeared promptly on to the roof. I hung around for a while pretending I didn’t care, and then went into bathroom.
The whole bathroom was white, the floor and walls were covered in white tile. There were a couple of plants in the window sill, and there were little objects in the earth part of the plants, little glass jewels or figurines reflecting the sun coming in from the light well, and I admired and coveted the feminine touch, a touch I didn’t myself posses. I didn’t have to pee, I just needed to be alone for a bit, to manage my shyness, and the little heartbreak I was having over the boy. I’d been in there for probably five minutes when his body plummetted past the window.
I went outside. There was a lot of commotion, everyone from the party had come outside into the street. I spotted her, the girlfriend, talking to paramedics, and I sat down nearby. I didn’t talk to her, I just sat and tried to be empty and absorptive. I was meditating, sort of, imagining the area around our bodies filling with light, a technique I’d learned from my grandmother. I wanted to hold her and also give her room. I wanted to absorb her fear and pain and overwhelm. At some point I noticed we were holding hands, although we still hadn’t exchanged a word, and I’m not sure she’d even looked at me. We sat together like that until it was time for her to get in the ambulantce and ride with the boy to the hospital. She asked the paramedics if I could go with her. They said that wasn’t possible.
Later I heard that he died in the ambulance. I never found out his name, and I never saw his girlfriend again.
A few years ago I experienced a radical healing as a result of a spiritual crisis in the form of finding out my yoga teacher was a fraudulent abuser of women and power. I questioned everything I had ever believed in. I questioned, and remain quite suspect of, belief itself. I came to understand how much of what I thought was supporting me and making me strong was actually holding me down, keeping me dependent, my self esteem resting in the opinions and approval of others, and whether or not my actions were of value to them.
I write things down. I have hundreds of little notes to myself, both paper and digital, of things that come up that feel important or resonant. This is one I wrote during that time:
Because of All the ways I pretend.
Because of All the ways I make myself invisible.
Because of All the ways I have brutalized myself in the name of protecting or serving others (breaking the waves)
There’s a certain way in which our best qualities, in terms of how we show up in the world, can be our biggest failures in the way we show up for ourselves.
I wrote a couple of days ago that “Me and my mat need relationship counseling.”
I’ve been thinking about that a lot since. I also wrote in the same post that “we must fight the should’s in our lives and our practices with the tenacity of a terrier”. Trés dramatique, eh? It might be that my mat and I just need to reimagine one another with the should’s taken away. As asana teachers, we tell our students every day that however they are, they are exactly how they need to be to practice. I think that is one of the most powerful messages that the Living Yoga teachers articulate to their students. But it’s easy to forget that ourselves.
A “lying down day” is how I’ve come to refer to the days where my energy is so low, all I can do is lie down. I think I can get up, sometimes I do get up, but then I just have to lie back down again. These days are becoming fewer and fewer, and seem to be related to actual exertion, as opposed to just randomly occurring. For the Yogathon, I vowed that I would go to my mat daily, even if just for an extended savasana. What I meant was that on the lying down days, I would spend some of my lying down time on my actual yoga mat.
At the very least, when I remember to come to my mat as I am, no should’s, I feel like I’ve done something constructive, which lifts my spirits.
Practice notes 4/10 – 4/13:
Friday was a lying down day. I did teach class on Friday, but it felt a little clunky because of the sludge that was masquerading as my brain.
Saturday was not a lying down day. I did savasana only, but by choice – I chose to spend my energy gardening, which fills my heart up. After gardening I sat with people I love, and our dogs, and ate tasty things – kippers and triscuits and pesto and pickles and some kind of delicious stout. As part of my study in self care, I have been actively practicing the art of enjoying things – friends and food and especially unscheduled time. I ate with the dirt and compost still on my hands and face. Came just as I was to that practice, too.
Armchair Sarvangasana (shoulder stand)
pranayama (ujaiii with antara and bahya kumbaka)
ajappa (silent mantra repetition)
Got up out of bed late at night to do this one, having forgotten/neglected. Super, super sweet practice.
Parivrtta Trikonasana (twisted triangle)
EPRK (Pigeon) prep with bow
EPRK (Pigeon) prep w/ open twist holding opposite foot
side two ^
Agnistambasana (fire log)
to supine baby cradle, to baby cradle crunch
Half happy baby
Supta Padanghusatasana lateral, and then front
second side ^
A few breaths in padmasana both sides
I felt pretty strong yesterday. Part of my healing process has been navigating what appears to be a complete re wiring of the messaging system that tells me what the right amount of effort is. I had always trusted in the fact that better energy would result from practice, or any exercise. It has been confusing and frustrating to realize that’s no longer a dependable assumption. A couple of weeks ago I took a gentle yoga class and was layed out for two days. Yesterday I hit the mark, which was great, because as a result I had a very productive Monday.
If you’re curious about Living Yoga‘s work and why it matters, check this video out – it features a man who’s gone full circle from felon to yoga teacher by committing to himself with the support of the LY programs.
To register for the 2015 Yogathon, go here (You are warmly invited to join my team – Team Loom!) To make a straight-up donation, go here. Thank you.
First Memory – Stepping precariously into a rowboat from a small dock on a crisp winter day, with an older couple I don’t know well – friends of my parents. Later, from their living room, watching snow fall in the woods through a sliding glass door. I remember the woman reached down to stroke my sister’s hair – this was meaningful to me, probably, because my sister had recently been diagnosed with cancer (she survived), and everything surrounding her felt strangely sad and important.
Dream – A tiny space is opening up inside – the space for self compassion. The space to care, to be kind to myself. To feel self.
The picture above is me in my garden last summer. I’d been trying to get sunflowers to take off for eight years, and it was so great – it felt like a miracle – that they finally just did, having successfully self-sown the year before. This really lifted my spirits after having been in bed all spring. It was the first year I didn’t put in a summer garden. Not one tomato. This was kind of a big deal for me, because ever since I was a little kid I wanted to grow things, to live on lots of land, keep chickens. Since I moved to Portland in 2007 and got some dirt of my own for planting, I’ve grown things and canned things. Until last Spring. I made peace with it. We have good farmer’s markets here in Portland. And the sunflowers definitely helped.
I wrote in my first Yogathon entry that in spite of my persistent fatigue, and the many false starts in my healing / recovery process where I thought I was getting better but wasn’t quite, I had reason to believe that this time, it was going to stick. The reason for that is so obvious it’s embarrassing to say it but here goes – earlier this winter, I went on vacation.
I’ve been asked by a few students who read my first entry whether I have Chronic Fatigue. Talking to a friend a while ago I brought up this possibility and he said, “Chronic fatigue is a description, not a diagnosis,” which was funny, but only partially true. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or CFS, is real, it is a diagnosis. I’ve read reams about it in the last few years. Did you know the author who wrote Seabicuit has it? She does, her name is Laura Hillenbrand, and she has become one of my bed ridden but accomplished heroes. I’m collecting them, just in case.
At this time, I have not been diagnosed with CFS. But I’ve learned a lot about what I’m going through by learning about CFS and other conditions that result in debilitating fatigue. Noatably, people who succumb to those are usually people who are active, strong, capable, passionate. I certainly was. I was always the hale and hardy type, hardly ever sick, never happier than when I was tilling the garden with a pick, or building a patio out of broken concrete pieces I collected from from the free pages on Craigslist. Or running in the woods with my dog. Or savoring a long, strong yoga practice.
But as my energy flagged more and more, and my responsibilities in the world didn’t, there just wasn’t gas in the tank for doing those things. And since my joys had always come from things that look a lot like working, I didn’t have any skills in the area of recuperative downtime. I had never heard the term “self care” until late 2011. The last few years I’ve been studying it, like an anthropologist.
And then in February I went on vacation, a proper one, the kind I couldn’t afford and would never intentionally plan for myself (long story). I went to a warm beach and did nothing but roll around in the gentle ocean and read and nap and take slow walks and eat tacos.
And when I came back I had that dream up there.
Here are some practice notes I found from a few days ago:
Insights from pulling up weeds in the garden -
first – that gardening is like painting, at least for me, in the sense that you have to just get your hands in there and start looking and working the way reveals itself. How is it I’ve lost that kind of communication with my asana practice? Me and my mat need relationship counseling.
second – that yoga practice is like gardening in that it’s slow, in that you have to be patient and you may not see results for a while, in that no one knows for sure what the results will be (“you could try it and see” is the famed answer of most gardening experts to almost any gardening question), and in that you are never, I repeat never, wasting your time when working in your garden or on your yoga mat. At the very least, you’ll feel more of yourself in that moment, and for the long term, you will have aerated the soil. A deep breath is like money in the bank.
Three things about yoga and life that have gotten really clear for me in the last couple / few years:
1 – start where you are. start in the middle (as if there is another choice)
2 – dig more than one deep well – try to learn a lot about at least one more than one thing. Learning about one thing you learn about that thing. But learning about two things, and the way those two things are similar and dissimilar, and you are learning about the universe itself.
3 – finally, yoga must be sweet. We must fight the should’s in our lives and in our practices with the tenacity of a terrier. Our practices – yoga, art-making, must grow up from deep within us like tulips, fertilized by longing and tilled by pleasure. Even our tapas, our disciplines, must sprout from the deep earth of our authentic desires and drives if they are to be alive, to thrive as the conditions of our lives allow. This I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt.
pigeon both sides
supine baby cradle, supta padanghustana forward and lateral both sides
fire log both sides
lotus with twist to both directions
ardha supta virasana with padanghustana
Here are my practice notes from today:
virasana for a long time, breathing
One of my strategies as a yoga teacher is story telling. I love to unravel the tendrils of a harrowing tale, or a hilarious or inspiring one. Offering just the right details, at just the right moments, to support or impact students’ effort in asana, is a project that tantalizes and taunts me almost as much as the practice of yoga itself. I often remind students during classes that Yoga is hard because life is hard, and I say it to make us laugh, but also because it’s true. Similarly, I think that a story’s complexity can be its strength. I think that often, what seem at first to be unwieldy details, or random tangents, or confusing subplots, turn out to hold gifts of depth and layered meaning mired within them. I hope I’m right about that, because I have a story to unravel that’s so complex it makes me tired just thinking about it.
But then, I’ve been tired for years, which is what this story is about. Though hardly anyone knows about it, for years I’ve struggled with minor to moderate but persistent health concerns, resulting in my body flat-out refusing to perform in the manner I had come to expect. Over the last five years os so, I have been deeply, chronically, at times debilitatingly fatigued. I balk at staircases. I’m not always up to walking my own dog. There have been stretches, a week, a couple of weeks, even a couple months at a time, when the only time I got out of bed during the day was to teach a yoga class. I watched the whole spring of 2014, the whole beautiful spring in beautiful Portland, pass by through my bedroom window.
There have been many ups and downs, times of feeling better, and then not so much. I have been positively diagnosed with, and treated for, a host of things; broken adrenals, low functioning thyroid, some issue relating to cortisol and estrogen balance (I can’t remember exactly), anemia, various vitamin deficiencies. Basically your run-of-the mill hormonal imbalances and stress related depletion disorders. But none of these things seem to explain the tenacity of my symptoms. That spring was the worst of it. It turned out I had Epstein-Barr, a wicked virus that has no business taking root in a healthy adult. But then I wasn’t healthy.
Mind you, there’s nothing threatening my life. I am am starkly aware of that fact. In the time I’ve been navigating these waters, I have watched friends and colleagues bravely face such demons as cancer, M.S., Lupus. In the past, I have nursed and then mourned loved ones who succumbed to AIDS and mental illness. I know how lucky I am for my overall health. And yet, there has been something taking the life out of my life, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it’s a special kind of torture to not have a diagnosis, a named enemy to go into battle with.
I have been both blessed and cursed in this life by a kind of stalwart, take-it-on-the-chin optimism, a quality that has both saved my butt and kicked me in it about a thousand times, such that through all of it I’ve simply held the belief that I’m on the mend. I’m always “getting my strength back”, emboldened by one treatable diagnosis or another. But the truth is that I’ve gone from vital and athletic, my can-do attitude perfectly matched by my hardy, reliable frame, to being almost paralyzed by a fear that I might inadvertently over-do, and trigger another bout of fatigue that will leave me unable to compose an email, or have a phone conversation. Afraid to accept a social invitation, or to practice asana for more than a few minutes at a time, after consistently requiring days of recovery after any but the most minimal movement. At a certain point I realized that there’s a way in which my positive attitude, the expectations I have held fast to that I would once again be the person I have always been if only I keep at my practice, get more rest, eliminate this food or the other from my diet, had become a pernicious presence of self-judging as I fail to meet those expectations day after day after day. For five, going on six, now, years.
At the moment of this writing I am – better. I have grown cautious around feeling excited about feeling better, because again and again such excitement has proved premature, but I do feel better right now than I have in a long time, and I have reason to believe that this time it’s going to stick. I’ve been taking steadily longer walks. I’ve been slowly adding strengthening asanas back into my yoga practice. That said, I still have days where I stand up, and promptly realize I have to lie back down again.
Why am a telling you this?
1 -Because I know I’m not the only one.
I heard a quote the other day: “If we knew each other’s secrets, what comfort we should find.” As I have walked through this foreign and sometimes terrifying period of unexplained alienation from my body, I have scoured the internet for evidence that I wasn’t alone. That someone, somewhere had experienced this before me, and had maybe even recovered. In part, telling is a way of giving back.
2 – Because not telling is exhausting.
This thousand armed beast wants out. As I mentioned above, I have mostly kept quiet about my struggles because I keep thinking it’s over (and then it’s not). But it’s also because it just feels unseemly to complain. Teaching yoga is a service, and it has felt inappropriate to me to burden those I serve with concerns for my personal well being. But I’m starting to see that this plan is unsustainable. I cannot continue to hold all the things I’m holding and still have the energy to show up for students, or even for my family, or myself.
3 – Because I’ve learned, so, much.
I used to think I knew what practice was. I thought I had discipline, because I diligently did my tapas, and the fire of my yoga steeled me, gave me strength and brought me peace. Just as all my teachers, and all of the texts had told me it would. But this particular demon I’m up against now only gets stronger when I confront it in battle. Like Raktabija, the demon who, when squaring off with the powerful Durga, produced infinite Raktabijas with every spilled drop of his blood.
As it turned out, I hadn’t begun to practice until my practice was taken away. Until what I thought to be the very heart of my sadhana – my body and the insights I gained on my yoga mat – was pulled out from under me, leaving me untethered and unsure.
So, I have a story to tell you. Or a thousand stories. Maybe a hundred thousand. I’m not sure what they are yet. For the month of the Yogathon I’ll post them here, as they surface, and also my practices. I know it will be healing for me to unravel them. And I hope they’ll be of use to you.