Apologies to Emily Dickinson for using a line from one of her poems, but it pretty much sums up the ache I have when I haven’t had a project to find myself lost in. Each time I sit in my little corner studio, Bach on Pandora, brushes clean and waiting, paint tubes all lined up, I hope this will be the day when I catch the breeze and fly. Sometimes, as with the quince or with the seed pods, it is just practice and preparation for the day when my wings unfurl.
I don’t know where I learned that the hips are where we store all of our emotions. I know it to be true though. When I’ve had a deep hip opening practice I feel like a dam has burst, and a few times this has ended in cleansing tears, much to the consternation of my family. Nevertheless, I resist hip openers in my own practice and haven’t found a really good way to work deep hip openers like pigeon pose into the hour-long early morning practice that I teach at Tranquil Space. My friend Alyson reminded me how much people love them, and so today I settled the class into pigeon and found my own heart opening vicariously.
I’d guess that hips have been on my mind for a while now. My own hips and the struggle against spread now that I’m fully planted in my middle-aged years. My daughter’s hips as I’ve watched as they’ve grown from boyish to beautiful in the past five years. My father’s and brother’s hips now that they are successfully replaced with titanium. When I cue asanas in class I feel as though I keep harping on “squaring the hips,” and have to smile to think of my mentor’s comment about “honest hips” in yoga practice.
I’ve also been working on this painting of rose hips, which are unusual in our severely landscaped neighborhood. Tom and I are notoriously terrible gardeners — we like to say that we grow children, not plants. A rose bush that I planted in the front yard has grown amok — sometimes falling over, other times hastily nailed up to the house, most of the time annoying Tom as he mows the front yard. We love to see it on that one week of the year when it is gloriously in bloom, then don’t pay it a bit of attention until the next year. It is a canopy to the window well where I keep my easel, and so when a sweet little chipmunk showed up to gnaw on acorns in front of the window as I was waiting for inspiration, I paid attention to him and then to the rose bush, which was covered in rose hips.
Rose bushes that aren’t well groomed grow rose hips — a fruit which holds rose seeds. And like all things in nature that are left to a little chaos, the lack of control can lead to wonderful sustenance. You can clip rose hips and make tea with a few of them, and jam if you have buckets of them. They have huge amounts of vitamin C and anti-oxidants. Thinking of eating this fruit reminds me of childhood. I can remember as a child having rose water liberally sprinkled on food. Or the Chartreuse green of Rose’s Lime Juice in a glass of soda and raw sugar. (Perhaps this is where the green-yellow comes from in the background of this painting.)
The pose of the month at the studio is bakasana, crow pose. This powerful pose requires open hips and a fearless heart as you hoist yourself up on the upper arms, balancing on hands, almost kissing the ground. The fruit of this pose is an open heart — tapping into emotions buried deep in the hip. As Alanna Kaivalya explains in Myths of the Asanas:
There’s a striking contrast between the way humans hold on to fear and the way animals freely let go of it…Asanas give us the opportunity to do just the same. We get the chance to move our life experience through our bodies by taking the shapes of the various forms in nature. We stretch and create space in our joints and muscles and do our best to embody the essence of each posture, learning its inherent lessons and experiencing freedom in that form. When this process takes hold and begins to release the fear from our body and our heart, we are able to live our lives joyfully, moment to moment. Fear lives in us as tension, and asana postures are designed to release tension from our bodies. The absence of tension is the absence of fear. And the absence of fear signifies the presence of joy, love and open-heartedness. As we embody these shapes in nature, we learn to fall in love with the world around us.
Most of my psychic energy in the past two weeks has been spent on new and sub classes and leaving my class at Pengu Studio. On October 1 I started teaching the 7 am class at Tranquil Space Dupont and will begin the 6:45 am class at the Arlington studio on October 16. On weekends I try out sequences, trying to get the flow right. I worry incessantly, and occasionally in the past week, I’ve been right to worry! For all my big talk about embracing beginner’s mind, I’m terrible at it. As my beautiful and wise daughter reminded me, everyone is perfectly imperfect. Get over it.
But I don’t want to turn away from the worry, because it has been a dense, rich soil for my creativity. For example, this month’s asana Bharadvajasana has been an inspiration for me on so many levels. The pose has so much going on it — part hero, part lotus, deep twist, bind. As I try it out in my body, I think of Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World. The autumnal colors and the fact that Christina turns away from the viewer gives the painting such a beautiful nostalgia. But this feeling is balanced by the horizon — there is hopefulness of creation and the freedom of spaciousness. This is exactly what Wyeth wanted us to take away. Christina was a neighbor of Wyeth’s who was afflicted by polio, who “was limited physically but by no means spiritually.” Wyeth explained, “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.” (From the MOMA website. It is part of the permanent collection.)
The pose also brings to mind the Zen teaching: “The past is already past. Don’t try to regain it. The present does not stay. Don’t try to touch it. From moment to moment the future will not come.”
Our nature is to turn back, to look for meaning, to right things that went wrong, to revel in the good feelings or wallow in the bad. And even when we aren’t looking back, the past comes looking for us.
Two Mondays ago was the seventh anniversary of my Mom’s passing. I hate to admit that this was the first year that I didn’t feel the loss in the marrow of my bones as the day approached. That evening I ran into one of Mom’s dearest friends at a work reception. It was a coincidence that was a gift . It reminded me about what is truly important about my past. We chatted until way too late about Mom, and I drove home feeling enlivened by the old stories, even the hardest one to relive, that of her last few months.
The next day, I went looking through the past for more of that warm embrace from the past. I flipped through her correspondence from Bangladesh in the 70s — hoping that there was a message. Anything for me here? Lots of talk about Dad’s job, my first Brownie uniform, how much weight my little brother had gained, the incessant monsoon rains, the fabric she used for upholstery on the drab government issued chairs. Nothing. Just the past.
Bharadvajasana is fully ground in the present. The sit bones are ground into the earth, the deep twist coming from the ribcage. Even though the heart pulls us into the past, our root is in the present.
This poem by Linji has helped me get to this sense of freedom from, in spite of, because of the past:
If you want to be free,
Get to know your real self
It has no form, no appearance
no root, no basis, no abode.
But is lively and buoyant
It responds with versatile facility
But its function cannot be located
Therefore, when you look for it,
You become further from it.
When you seek it, you turn away from it all the more.
About fifteen years ago when I was just a bit lost, a friend took me to dinner and gave me two out-of-print editions of theologian Paul Tillich’s sermons. At the time I was considering going to seminary. The sermon “The Meaning of Joy,” found in The New Being (1955, Scribner) is an essay I’ve returned to time and again. (Although I was not called to study at the seminary, serendipity led me to work there as their fundraiser for four wonderful years.)
Tillich argues that Christianity has lost its way in understanding and reflecting true joy — and I would argue that many of the world’s religions have done just the same, mostly because our basest instincts want to define joy as merely seeking pleasure or avoiding pain. Tillich’s discussion of the joy of work is what is interesting to me on this Labor Day, particularly because it reminds us how central work is to true joy:
The joy about our work is spoiled when we perform it not because of what we produce but because of the pleasures it can provide us, or the pain against which it can protect us. The pleasure about the fact that I am successful spoils the joy about the success itself. Our joy about knowing truth and experiencing beauty is spoiled if we enjoy not the truth and the beauty but the fact that it is I who enjoys them…To seek pleasure for the sake of pleasure is to avoid reality, the reality of other beings and the reality of ourselves. But only the fulfillment of what we really are can give us joy. Joy is nothing else that the awareness of our being fulfilled in our true being, in our personal center. And this fulfillment is possible only if we unite ourselves with what others really are. It is reality that gives joy and reality alone. …”Rejoice!” That means: “Penetrate from what seems to be real to that which is really real.” Mere pleasure, in yourselves and in all other beings, remains in the realm of illusion about reality. Joy is born out of union with reality itself. (pp. 145 -147)
Tillich’s essay brings us the same wisdom about joy as does Patajali’s Yoga Sutras. True joy is discovered in understanding that it is illusion that keeps us separate from each other and from our true selves. For Patanjali, the eight-fold path is a practice (work) to bring our attention to the fact that we have within us the ability to break through the bonds of ignorance that keep us from enlightenment — pure joy — our true selves. Patajali says that the veil of illusion makes us “confus[e] the temporary for the eternal, the impure for the pure, misery for happiness, and the false self for the true Self. (Yoga Sutras 2.5). (See www.swamij.com for more. Great site shared with Tranquil Space teachers-in-training by Kevin Waldorf-Cruz.)
I’ve had jobs that have kept me in the comfortable veil of illusion. My personal “misery for happiness” illusion was thinking that I would get the golden ticket when I was a Mom of a toddler and a second grader, commuting 2 hours a day. When I was laid off from this job, I found a part-time (but really full-time) job helping a church build a mission into a free-standing non-profit organization serving vulnerable children with after school arts programming. At the time, taking the Project Create job seemed self-indulgent. Even though I was securing funding, developing the board, writing the 501(c)3 paperwork, hiring artists, keeping track of supply inventory and schlepping children all over town in a church van, I felt that I was hiding from the “real” world, licking my wounds. But it was this job that was the realest of the real. It allowed me to serve people who needed help. It gave me the gift of hard physical labor. I was able to develop or discover talents that would take to serve others. Finally, this part-time job gave me time freedom that led to three other part-time jobs — one of which was with the Corcoran College of Art and Design, where I started to study and found more bliss in my own self-expression.
A yoga practice allows us to test, reframe and refine our knowledge each time we step on the mat and then asks that we take wisdom off the mat and into the world. The mat marks the path to our true selves that will not only give us, but also will allow us to reflect joy.
Thank you to all the wonderful friends at Iona Senior Services as I celebrate five years of service this month. Love the work — love you all!