The Azalea Sutra

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The sun came out for a little while on Thursday, just long enough for me to think about going for a walk. By the time I cross the street to walk by the privacy fence with the forever barking dog behind it, the sky was cloudy again and a brisk wind reminded me it is still only early Spring.

My mood is elevated by the hints and touches of Spring peeking out at me. A pink magnolia tree, with petals strewn around its base like the red carpet at a wedding, sparks little shoots of green from its branches. The moss clinging to magnificent oaks is freshly saturated by the recent fog and is thoroughly audacious in its greenery. My sycamore out front is still bare, but tall and winding skyward. The camellias are still going strong, if not a little heavy on the trees, like they grow weary of all the wet weather and wish for sunlight to dry their faces. And then there’s the damn azaleas, pink and white in turn.

For every rose bush, oak tree, hibiscus –  the sago palms and gardenia bushes, there seems to be a hundred azalea bushes. I’m walking along with this light springy feeling in my chest, something like one might feel at the sudden arrival of a pastry stuffed with a light cream, and I wonder why those god awful azaleas are making me feel so happy.

It’s the pink azaleas that draw my eye the most; they’re a shade between bubblegum pink and the fuchsia that was so popular in the eighties, just a tone darker than what Sheena Easton used as her choice color of blush. The blooms congregate on these massive bushes, their green showcases the passionate blooms like the black night illuminates the stars. The white azaleas remind me of swans swimming among gentle waves of leaves, little handkerchiefs adrift of the hands of nature.

Whilst I power walk in my neighborhood, I take a stroll down memory lane. I remember the Azalea Trail painted in a pink stripe down both sides of the street where I lived in Mobile. To be honest, I have no idea what the purpose of the Azalea Trail is, other than to designate the rout that the Azalea Trail Maids must follow in their parade through Mobile. I’m not sure what their purpose is, either, but I bet it’s some kind of southern society I want no part of, especially the part where you have to wear a dress that looks suspiciously like those damnable Azalea flowers.

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I remember finding leaves that got painted in the Pepto Bismol pink that missed the hue of anything natural by a few shades. Sheena Easton’s cheeks looked more natural in 1981. These leaves intrigued me, by either their misfortune or good luck, I’m not sure. I also scratched out rocks from the street’s pavement that were painted the same shade by a truck that drives for the city, painting streets, while all around my house the azaleas blazed.

Azaleas are synonymous with this time of year. The end of that interminable Mardi Gras and the start of Lent, for you heathens who don’t know what that is, don’t worry, neither do I. The distinct feeling of the the wind’s touch in the month of March whispers optimism, renewal and a touch of delirium from vitamin D deficiency. There is a promise at this time of year that is more Earthy than some far off mystical experience or promise of salvation or enlightenment. It’s the promise of life, to be exhilarated and frustrated with daily existence, to be disenchanted by feelings of monotony while holding in heart and mind the ability to enact the drama of your wildest dreams and most creative aspirations. We are reminded of the simplicity and audacity of life when flowers bloom, kittens open their eyes, the sky changes from sunny to overcast, a sudden thunderstorm appears overhead, sunlight breaks through the clouds. In an instant things can change, a small green sprout will surprise a branch with its happiness.

I love the Spring almost as much as I love the Fall, but I’ve hated azaleas for as long as I can remember. I round a corner in my neighborhood and must contend with seeing a massive wall of azaleas, white and pink and green. They are taller than I am, and I notice this sensation of happiness in my body, like bubbles or butterflies dancing. What the hell am I doing with this happiness while there are azalea bushes vexing me with their presence?

A green shoot of awareness juts from this barren branch of habituated loathing and I recall that for as long as I can remember, my mother has hated azaleas. Every single Spring she would disdain the blossoms unfurling their petals in abundance all over the damn place (admittedly, I use significantly more profanity than my mother ever has, expletives are my own). With that whole mysterious Azalea Trail business afoot in the Spring, there were plenty of azaleas to hate. She was reminded of her dislike around every corner, and she reiterated it often. Ironically, my mother loves every other flower. She can recognize different varieties of the rose, can root anything that has been alive within a decade; she adores the scent of magnolia, cuts plumes of ginger blossoms for me to put on my altar, violets stay alive in her possession. She once resurrected an aloe plant that died immediately from being given to me as a Christmas gift.

I am startled to discover I don’t hate azaleas at all. I think I might even be fond of them, if I’m to listen to the sensations I feel rather than the impressions I’ve adopted. When I see these bushes I think of being a kid in Alabama going to see my great-grandmother on Easter. I remember Spring breaks, cosmetology school, all the miles I ran in all the neighborhoods in which I lived. I think of this neighborhood where I live now and feel grateful.

This accidental little experiment made me wonder what in the hell other inherited opinions I carry I’m not yet aware of. As I make deeper inquiries of myself, my power walk slows to a pace more conducive to contemplation. After another block or so, I am heartened, because being able to discern the mental impressions and entrenched nature of thoughts is one of the purposes of yoga (and by yoga I mean meditation, not handstand in a bikini).

The mind can be such a tyrant. It knows who is right and what is wrong. Azaleas are bad, hibiscus are good! As someone who practices meditation with some level of regularity, sometimes the best I can hope for during a practice is for the grip of my mind’s opinions and judgement to loosen up, admit to being wrong, or sometimes harder still – admit to just not being right.

This moment feels like a little, but important, wedge between my incessantly thinking mind with all of its preferences and determinations and the mind that is a tool for care and creativity. I recently increased my daily meditation time, not by much and that whole “daily” part yet remains to be seen, but this insight came at such an opportune moment, bolstered by the bird song and other cliches of Spring. This stuff works, and I might add even more time to my sitting meditation practice to find out exactly how well. It might even become daily.

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The Great Outdoors

For the month of March we endeavored to practice one yoga pose every single day. We went with the same posture; downward facing dog. One down dog every day and see what happens.

I thought about adding onto this, building a pose by month sequence so at the end of the year we’d get up to twelve poses a day. But the weather has been so pretty lately and I can be such a shut-in that I want to offer a variation on home practice.

Let’s practice outside. I know what you’re thinking because it’s the same thing I was thinking when I wanted to practice outside – bugs. Bugs and sunshine. Yuck. Combine the two and you have a perfectly good nightmare.

Last week I ordered an all-weather picnic blanket. The thought of eating outside is almost as horrific as doing yoga outside, so a picnic blanket is not something I thought I’d ever own, but it’s Spring and I’m feeling it. The pattern on my large all-weather picnic blanket is blue flowers on a darker blue background and looks not unlike a sheet set we had when I was five. I love it.

Last Sunday, thanks to Amazon Prime and my decisive internet shopping bonanza, I take my blue hippie flower all-weather blanket outside and find a nice area of the yard free of dog poop. The wind blows through the branches above me, which I take for a good sign. I go in and slather SPF 50 on my dedicates and ink, some of which overlap. Unperturbed by the heat, I grab the dish towel with a faded strawberry pattern to keep handy in case I sweat. Even though the Florida sun cannot possibly be hotter than an unholy hot yoga class, I decide to play it safe. No need slipping in a puddle of sweat and having to wait for someone to find me.

When I begin my practice the sun has arced over head and is on its downward journey to the sea. It is still high enough to be brilliant and warm on my skin like a cosmic heating pad administering healing vibes to my sore muscles. Though it is warm, there is a steady Spring breeze that keeps me cool and inspired. There are a few clouds that hang around above me. They are full, white and comfortable in their powder blue home.

The dogs are displeased with this sojourn into the outside and that it excludes them, but they try to escape through the holes in the fence the raccoons dug and I don’t want to worry about them while I bask in sunlit tranquility. Also, they bark. I leave them inside to sulk.

I do the practices I received the last time I went to see Swami. It’s a beautiful sequence to the bright red moon. There is also a breathing practice and mantra sadhana (chanting practice) included at the conclusion. It’s the real deal, ya’ll, at least as long as a “real” yoga class, if not longer if you include the time I spent just looking up into the trees and sky.

This isn’t practical in the everyday world for a daily practice. It is hard practicing everyday and it is especially difficult if I have in my head it is supposed to look a certain way. But I think, given the warmth and sunshine, this is something I can do once a week for a month to see what happens.

So this is what we’re adding on; practice outside at least once a week for the month of April. I think that an enclosed porch, outdoor patio or balcony counts (one of the most amazing practices I ever enjoyed solo was on a third floor balcony in Gulf Shores around mid-night). If you like the beach and are into sand and that sort of thing, try taking your mat out there. There are also some really nice parks around, but the backyard is nice, too.

At this point, you might have a question you want to ask; Prana Devi, I’d love to practice yoga outside and bask in the tranquility of the sun. But I haven’t been practicing yoga for very long and I don’t know what to do. How do I practice yoga outside when I don’t really know how to practice yoga?

Excellent question! I’ll give you a few options. First, go to the bookstore. Find the magazine section and, I am not kidding, buy a print yoga magazine. This is how I built my own home practice. Most yoga magazines have at least one, if not several, practice sequences with pretty good explanations. Take the magazine outside with you and lay it open on your all-weather picnic blanket. Use crystals, your coffee cup or mala beads to hold the pages open. Do what the pictures tell you.

Your phone is another option. That marvel of modern technology has more computing capability than the first spaceships. Find a good educational yoga website, choose a video and do it – outside on your all-weather picnic blanket. I suggest Yoga International.

Lastly, start taking yoga classes and take notes of sequences you like. Ask the instructor to make a short sequence for you so you can take it home and practice outside on your all-weather picnic blanket. Remember your practice does not have to be long to count and it does not have to be complex to have meaning. You just have to do it. Let me know how it goes.

If you are still practicing the daily down dog stick with it and see how many days you can go. If you want to freshen up your single pose du jour, for the month of April pick an asymmetrical posture like Warrior 1 or seated spinal twist. You’ll have to do both sides which, if you think about it, is like doing two yoga poses a day!

Lastly, if you choose to order an outdoor blanket make sure its measurements are larger than your yoga mat is long. I practice on a longer 72 inch yoga mat so double-check your measurements to avoid disappointment. Who in the hell wants their yoga mat touching the ground? We mat be practicing outside, but we’re not insane!