Moon Hand Sun Hand

On Friday I went to Atlanta for a workshop called The Yogic Teachings of the Moon. Who wouldn’t want to go learn about all of that?

We may have been learning about the cooling light of the moon, but my Swami was on fire all weekend. She walked in Friday night with Shakti blazing and it was all Celestial from there. I wouldn’t begin to give a synopsis of the teachings, so this isn’t what the post is about. It’s about left and right, my friend, and my relationship with it.

The right side of the body is associated with the sun, brilliance, intellect and the masculine. The left side of the body is the moon, creativity, and the feminine. There are pranayama (breath practices) one can use to bring the left and right sides of the brain into harmony, so neither dominates the other. This leads to a stillness in the mind that helps us enter into deeper states of quiet and meditation. It is a point of balance so brilliant and illuminating that it is comparable to the sun and the moon.

I often think of the left and right side of the body, being a yoga instructor I deal in one side at a time. I am also intrigued with handed-ness. I quickly notice if I am dealing with a left handed person; one of my managers at the restaurant, the tattoo guy who put Bastet on my leg, the students at Uru Yoga and Beyond who sign their name on the clip-board, having to turn their bodies just so to the negotiate the pen on the straight line.

As a kid, my first urges to retrieve a Crayon or a fork was with my left hand. At the same time, I had a wonderfully well-meaning great-grandmother who wasn’t having any of that. Her name was Honey and she worked with me all the time. She taught me how to spell and write when I was very young. This is, in part, why I am so advanced to this day. I also credit her with my love of writing and books of all kinds. Granted, this love has sometimes become a bit of an obsession with reading materials, but also it is still a blessing.

While she was teaching me how to write my name and other important things like colors and animals, she insisted that I use my right hand in spite of my left handed tendencies. She was superstitious and believed that left handedness was a sign of witchcraft and other devilry that we didn’t want around. And so, my left hand was abandoned for the more wholesome right hand.

Well, it seems that left handed people are known for their creative brilliance. They are wildly innovative and successful like someone born under the sign of Leo without a single malefic planet buggering their aspirations. This is the left handed person. The right handed person, infinitely more common, is analytical and thinks ‘like the rest of us’.

Here I am, in handedness purgatory. I feel cheated. I am not ambidextrous. If I tried to write something with my left hand the entire appendage would look something like a writhing turtle chewing the eraser end of a pencil. However, there are some things I do like a left handed person, like when I went boxing I stood like someone who’d used their left hand their whole life.

I have often wondered if this little well intended change to my handedness didn’t hinder my ability to fully harness the creativity I feel coursing through me like currents of good ideas grounded too soon, like lightening with poor depth perception. I have wondered if my brain didn’t fire the way it was supposed to and so, I didn’t fire the  way I was meant to.

Last Saturday, after we learned about the Moon and Her Yogic Secrets, me and a whole bunch of ravenous yogis went to an Indian restaurant and ate our weight in delicious food. While I am scooping up some spicy brown sauce I notice the woman across from me eating with her left hand. She is a stroke survivor and now teaches yoga to other stroke survivors. I am compelled to ask, “Were you right handed before your stroke?”

She was right handed before her stroke. I was interested in the process of changing one’s handedness as an adult and due to such an intense circumstance at that. Changing her dominate hand was not a choice but a fierce act of healing. I felt a little ridiculous when I told her about Honey and my obsession with hand dominance in light of her life and death ordeal.

This woman has large brown eyes swimming in smooth, dark skin. Her hair is very short with a shock of white near her hairline, which makes her youthful appearance look very wise.  When asked about her experience, and my reason for asking, the space between us felt very quiet, held  in the silent grasp of her clear gaze.

She moves her food around with the fork as we move into a conversational tone on this topic, other friends nearby chime in here and there. While she is talking to me, I notice her right hand resting tranquilly in her lap. Then she says, “Maybe this change helped you somehow.”

I feel my head turn to the side, like a dog who isn’t sure if its human asked if it needed to go outside or if it wants a treat. She says it again, in a slightly different way, but I just hold my breath in this novel idea’s wake.

What if being forced to use my non-dominate hand during early development was somehow a boon to my thinking processes. Perhaps creativity has flourished in distinct and unprecedented ways because of my superstitious great-grandmother?

Let me tell you something, Reader, this never occurred to me. If I hadn’t been sitting down at the table, I would have had to sit down for a minute under the weight of this implication. What if my effervescent personality, quirks and all, are the product of the way my brain adapted to changing from left to right dominance when I was two? Maybe this is why I am good at mirroring a fitness class when I teach it, perhaps this is the reason you like my writing, I can draw really good horses, I make such fine malas and understand the language of cats.

This was a lesson not in handed-ness but in the thinking mind’s processes and its gravitation towards the negative. I had not even thought there could be a positive to this and so never believed in it.

This year, with the same Swami I just went to see, we are studying the Yoga Sutras. This is the instruction manual for yoga practice, and unlike my previous post I ain’t just talking about downward facing dog. In this text there is a lot of talk about the mind and its ‘fluctuations’. In this study is the invitation to choose one’s thoughts, which I think is a really seductive practice, perhaps even more appealing than floating between handstand and scorpion pose. The ability to choose my thoughts, and recognize that I am not my thoughts, is one of the wildest and most healing benefits of yoga.

I see that I was creating separation between one side of myself and the other; the left and right at odds with each other and my ability to be in the world as my fabulous self hinging on the outcome of this battle. However, if my left handedness and right handedness combined to work on behalf of  the still point between the sun and the moon within me, then I empower that unity by dis-empowering the negative mind.

This is real wild territory. Perhaps uncharted territory, but a landscape that is rich with the potential to be free from the barrage of negative thoughts. This feels like the landscape of the Cosmos, the very same one that spins within each and every heart on the planet, not too hot like the sun and not too cool like the moon, but just perfect as it beats in time to the rhythm of life. Who wouldn’t want to go learn about all of that?

 

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2017, Day 2

Monday, as the second day of the new year, was dazzled by storms. I do not like storms. I like rain. I like rainy days in which I do not have to leave my house. I like thunder in the distance and perhaps a sharp pop of lightening as a way of reminding me of unseen marvels just waiting to reveal themselves. I do not like whirling wind that drops chunks of ice through shivering tree branches.

Monday, I was at the studio at three o’clock to tie silk tinsel in someone’s hair. While working in the lounge I hear something like a bag of rocks emptied onto the roof. I am afraid to look out the window.

The front door got sucked open by an outside vacuum and another rock or two pelted the building. My young client and I move to an interior space along with other hanger-outers at the studio. Folks with smart phones start looking at weather alerts and subsequent warnings. With my heart alerting me to new levels of anxiety I realize, with no little detachment, that if we’re about to be struck by any type of weather, by the time it is on anyone’s phone it’ll be too late.

Because there are children in the room I keep this to myself. Instead, I try to regain some control of my pulse and blood pressure. The studio owner, standing there with her phone in its pink case, puts her hand on my back. It is an intimate feeling to know that she can feel my heart beat its rapid staccato. Imagine, dear Reader, someone able to feel your heartbeat right this moment. How close would they have to be, and how wild would its rhythm have to be, to share itself with someone else?

My anxiety thus exposed by my pounding heart, I mention with a surprisingly casual air, “If no one shows up for my 4:30 class then I want to cancel my 6 o’clock.” It is reasonable, after all, to imagine that no one would dare tempt the weather for a yoga class. There are, on a given day, about thirty nine opportunities to take a yoga class within about a ten and a half mile radius. Just saying.

Three people show up. I have the audacity to be surprised. After twenty some odd years of working with the public in various venues they still manage to surprise me. Let me say, never have I ever not wanted to teach so badly. I felt ill and heavy, like someone poured lead into my guts and it cooled and hardened into smooth, metallic fear.

I am nothing if not professional. Perhaps too business oriented these days, but that topic is for later. While I walk down the ramp to teach, my mind whirls with the same agitations as the wind; I feel unreasonably mad at the people who are there to take class.Two of the people are teacher trainees and I want to tell them they don’t want this job. I want to stay in the interior of the building where I can’t see the angry wind, where I can only hear and feel my heart beat.

I remember something from my teacher training that has served me well. On a Wednesday about halfway through my training, my instructor flew into the studio with only moments to spare before class. He’d had to drive from Destin to Fort Walton and got stuck in traffic the likes of which can only be seen in Florida in Summer. He was in a mood. A bad one.

I knew we were in for it when he did a whole bunch of plank poses and down dogs and standing poses right at the beginning. Suddenly, the standing poses became like a lightening rod for everyone in the room, including my pissed off teacher. While he was teaching his voice came back to the timbre I knew. It was like the grounding quality of an intense standing pose practice effected him, even though he was only in the room guiding the practice.

He held the trainees after class and talked about standing poses. He said, and I’ll never forget it, “When you don’t feel like teaching yoga that day, teach standing poses.”

Naturally, I wondered what in the hell could ever happen that would make me not want to teach yoga. Let me tell you, lots of things happen all the time that make me not want to teach yoga. I would not still be in this line of work were it not for the many things that happen that make me wonder what might happen if I continue to teach yoga, weather permitting.

I have another class to teach this stormy Monday evening.  I think certainly no one will show up. Oh yes they do. I unroll my mat because I am teaching Kali Natha yoga, a scripted yoga practice that I practice with the class. The weather has become worse. I recall a poetic something of black rainbows and sideways lightening when Swami taught a weekend on Living the Reality of Shiva.

There is a blond woman on the front row with a high pony tail and exhilarated look on her face. She likes Kali Natha yoga and says something that reminds me of the Rudra Asana series. Rudra is the storm God, an aspect of Shiva – the Lord of Yoga, who can assist with controlling the seemingly untamable storms of the mind.

Why yes, dear Reader, I did pause before committing to practice with three other souls a yoga series devoted to a storm god while it sounded like the world was getting torn apart outside. At the same time, I was committed to the practices, rain or shine, whether I liked it or not. I decided to trust the deity who came forward in that moment.

Yes, there was another pause when I went into downward facing dog and saw out the window, from upside down, lightening flash like an arrow into the ground and thunder rattle the windows in the exact same moment. I wondered if I shouldn’t have chosen a different asana series, something like, oh I don’t know, a tranquil lotus sequence or perhaps a series dedicated to a calm lake.

I don’t think there are many of those, however. I don’t think Kali Natha Yoga has many sequences to tame the tranquil lotus or admire the still pond, though I might be proven wrong. The sequences I have learned so far are designed to move the yogi straight into the heart of the moment accompanied by God – the Storm God, the Goddess of Time, the Jungle Mother, the Fire Lotus.

I hadn’t thought of this practice this way before. This teaching is one of those unseen marvels that keep me on the mat. This is one of those times in which I might not have engaged with the practice as deeply had it not been such a heightened moment. This is one of those times I am aware of the answer to the question; what might happen if I keep teaching yoga? I will grow.

After class, with a calm air outside the studio, I remembered why I fell so in love with this practice. Storms battered Pensacola the rest of the night, but there was a quiet so pervasive that snaked through the room after practice it was as though we were the quiet itself and that we were in it together.

Jaded Primitive

I am doing a Mary Oliver sadhana (practice). I totally made it up, but I like it. I like Mary Oliver.

I remember being in class with Laura at Dragonfly Yoga Studies, where I did my 200 hour yoga teacher training. I was one of my first few classes with her in late October before the January training began. Class was hard and intense and I believed that if ever there was a human who could help me become an effective yoga teacher, it was Laura.

I felt insulated and regimented in the hour and fifteen minute class, in which she played no music or tried much of anything fancy, just deep and real instruction. I learned to lean into the discipline of the practice and found satiation there, even with the open wound I carried around with me, my heart still tender from a loss.

She read a poem as we went into savasana, which Mukunda Stiles calls relaxation and absorption pose. Typically known as corpse pose, I stretched out on my back and felt the heaviness of my body rest into the Earth. I felt wrung out from the practice, but also lustrous on the inside like I had been polished in some important way.

The poem she read, In Blackwater Woods, tore through me like a million tiny stallions breaking free of their pens. I had never heard of Mary Oliver before that poem cut channels to my heart from the hard rock shaped by life….

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment…

I felt myself crumbling a little bit when she enchanted the poem over us. Then she began to chant some mantra I had never heard in my years of self-study. It rang through the room and burst through my eyes. She walked around smearing essential oil on our heads like a priestess anointing initiates.

…Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.

I remember the feeling of her fingers, coated with lavender essential oil, pass through the tracks of my tears. I needed this poem and the poet, too, who took me to the edge of lying down and allowed me to bow deeply to my heart.

It is six years later and I have learned that Mary Oliver is one of the unofficial poets of the yoga community. New teachers come along, fresh like I was when Laura held me in her voice, and are smitten by the imagery of this artist’s work. I began to feel like a cliche, at once moved by something that is old hat to the disenfranchised. I watch new teachers make the same discoveries and wonder how I didn’t see myself, silly and new, falling in love. I sometimes feel the rigormortis of cynicism stiffen my mind that rested so easily in corpse pose those years ago.

The Mary Oliver practice is one I devised to brighten my practice of writing and mindfulness. Her work is one of the mysteries, nature and something primitive the mind isn’t advanced enough to understand. Her poetry silences thoughts not unlike Rumi or Ramprasad, but different.

Since my perspective of teaching yoga has changed in the last few months and so has my perception of my other work, like writing. I finished a longer work of fiction which I am allowing to “rest” as Stephen King suggests in his book “On Writing”. Six weeks is the minimum length of time one should step away from the story before attacking it for the second draft.

I’d just gotten my legs back under me to finish this book, which has absolutely nothing to do with yoga, by the way. I’d hate to lose momentum, especially since it’s so damn hard to gain through the discouragement and loneliness of writing.

The Mary Oliver practice consists of writing a poem a day for 40 days. The poem is inspired by something I encounter that lends itself to a feeling, memory or insight. When you see the moon, dear reader, what do you see in your inner landscape, illuminated? When the band of merry raccoons dance around the pool, who are you reminded of? Make a poem out of this.

A poem a day doesn’t sound like a lot, but try it. It is an art of discipline and creativity which are the ingredients necessary for gaining and maintaining momentum, both of which are necessary for spiritual practice as well as artistic endeavors.

If you would like to practice with me I would love to see some of your work – post your poetry in the comments if you’d like to share. If poetry, observation and writing practice bordering on Zen aren’t your thing, you might like to participate in NaNoWriMo with me this year… but more on that later.

In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

–Mary Oliver (American Primitive, 1983)