The Daily Dog

For the well of creativity churning within my being, the best I could come up with for this title is The Daily Dog. It’s predictable, which I don’t care for at all, but is counter-balanced by the fact that it somehow reminds me of a newspaper. In spite of all the writerly dreams and aspirations I have suffered, I never once wanted to be a journalist or reporter, though if I had this would be my chance to feel like one. “Yes, I’m a writer for The Daily Dog, I have a few questions…”

If you have studied with me, you know I am an advocate for home yoga practice. I sometimes teach a workshop to help folks interested in a daily yoga practice get started. The beginning stages of anything are daunting, most especially a yoga practice at home, and it’s nice to get a few pointers and a little encouragement.

I remember when I started trying to practice yoga at home. I had a collection of Yoga Journal yoga sequences I’d torn out and lovingly placed in plastic sleeves which then went into a green binder. I schlepped this binder around with me for I don’t know how long before I ever actually tried to practice out of it.

The reason for the binder is that when I started to take my yoga practice beyond the confines of the studio I discovered that, no matter how long I’d been practicing under the guidance of a teacher, I completely forgot what to do next. I remember being in a hotel room with my yoga mat and feeling very yogier than thou with it, thankyouverymuch. Come on! Who doesn’t want to be so yogi that they do yoga on vacation?

Out comes the mat, unsnapped as unceremoniously as a yoga teacher trainee who just got their first subbing gig. There I was, alone with this mat beneath me. I stand, coming into mountain pose upon the gargantuan size nine and a half feet the good lord gave me. My hands are in prayer pose, the little acrylic tips of my fake nails click together just above my sternum in a very sincere gesture of introspection.

I reach my arms out and up, diving into the sky on the zephyr that is my breath then dive! deep beyond the ruddy carpet into the depths of my own soul. Then, dear Reader, I completely forget what comes next in the sun salutation sequence. I languish there in a bored lunge pose, eventually making my way to downward facing dog.

By the time I do a few standing poses, I’ve given up on going much further in this yoga session. It is extremely likely I smoked a few cigarettes on the narrow patio at the edge of the moist, green golf course on which my little cabana was situated. The night is a swirl of green and black made hazy by a late night mist. I sit there, on the cement side of the patio like a sleeper sure not to let their toe move beyond the periphery of the bed, uncertain as I was of what might be out there lurking past the dolphin fountain and clubhouse.

Granted, this was a few years before I went through yoga teacher training, but it was a turning point in regards to what I wanted to get out of my practice. I wanted to have access to it all of the time.

Those of you who have studied with me also know I’m into the whole “daily practice” thing. This is a loaded statement to yogis who think a practice consists of a whole bunch of sun salutes, a couple of arm balances and a round of wheel poses. Certainly the physical postures are important and what we’re about to get into here, but I have to say that daily practice counts as watching your breath for five minutes before you go to work in the morning or at night, before bed. “Daily practice” is something different from daily postures, which is why I chose to distinguish the two with the title of this post.

You will receive the benefits of the postures through only one means; you must actually do them. Though it pains me to say, simply reading about them ain’t gonna cut it. Neither is watching videos or clips on the internet which, I must admit, has become one of my new favorite occupations since discovering Instagram. Just saying.

I had the idea of suggesting one posture to practice a day and see how it goes. If you’re interested you might want to take a picture of yourself on day one and then do one a week to see how the posture changes over the next thirty days.

What I would suggest to you also, especially if you already have a regular yoga practice at home, in the studio or both, is to pay attention to how your body changes and how this one, seemingly simple practice might influence your posture practice overall.

In honor of the blog title and name of this endeavor, let’s do downward facing dog as our first post of the month. If you take pictures, have someone take a picture from four angles. The alignment cue that I suggest is to think of your hands as another set of feet while in this pose. Let your fingers be really long and see that the index fingers and thumbs press down into the mat beneath you so that the weight is evenly balanced across the expanse of your palms. At the same time, be aware of where the feet connect to the floor, bending your knees as you need to.

Try to hold this posture for three to five breaths to begin. See if you can make it to eleven breaths in Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog pose) and see how this changes your relationship with other poses you might practice as well as your everyday walking around posture. Be advised that this is not meant to be a stick with which to beat yourself up if you miss a day here and there. Just go for it and see what happens.

Let me know how it goes and, as always, be sure and check with both your physician and felines before starting any new exercise routine.

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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)